May Day, which is also called International Workers’ Day, commemorating the historic struggles and gains made by workers and the labour movement, is observed in many countries on 1 May. As the country prepares to mark this significant day, Ceylon Today spoke to an often-forgotten and neglected segment of society – the invisible heroes of the busy metropolis of Sri Lanka, who start their day earlier than everyone else in the city, to clean the streets of Colombo and to make them ready for the day’s use.

H.A. Chandana was having his breakfast – a pol rotti with a cup of plain tea – sitting on a pavement at Horton Place, hiding behind his garbage cart.

“I was working in India two years ago as a chef for IRs 130,000 per month and had to return to Sri Lanka when my mother was paralysed. I came back to take care of her and help my family for a few months. With the hospital runs and then because of the pandemic followed by travel restrictions, I got stuck in
Sri Lanka and lost my job. Then during the pandemic all my savings were drained out to feed my family. Finally,
I had to settle with this job until I get a better job, based on my qualifications.
I have been looking for jobs for nearly a year now. No country wants to hire
Sri Lankans after the pandemic. I will continue this job though I only get
Rs. 40,000 per month, as I have to support and feed three kids, my mother and my wife,” he added.

He further noted that previously, when he started working as a cleaner, the people who passed by would at least donate a packet of rice, or food once in a while, on their way to work.  

“Now they have no time to look out for others. The general public is busy waiting in queues.  I always witness longer queues for petrol and diesel. At the Horton Place shed I see people who are in a hurry to go to work getting frustrated by waiting in such long queues. People do not have money or time to take care of themselves because the inflation has drained their money and by standing in queues their time has also drained out,” he added.

Sumedha, who has been working as a cleaner for 10 years, was hopeful that this Government still has a chance to resolve the issues of this country and continue to be in power.

“This Government earned a lot of respect by saving our country from the war. All they have to do is to ask for a donation or a loan from another country and sort out the price hike of the essentials, because they did a lot of services to this country which are worth going down in future history books. How can I vote for another party, knowing that all the Opposition parties in this country, also got their chances to rule this country and had made the public and country feel miserable than at present. I had to walk nine miles in the 70s to the Army ration shop to buy rice. My brothers were killed and our houses were burnt during those ‘70s bheeshanaya’.  Black July is another reminder. Then, even the present main Opposition MPs got their chance to rule before this government came to power, yet they did nothing,” she added.

Sumedha also noted that she would not support any political party in future and was just going to cancel the ballot paper, though she was a firm supporter of politics earlier.

Premachandra, who has been a cleaner for 15 years, said a few years back a packet of rice only cost Rs 80 and with chicken it was Rs 140, but now a packet of rice with egg is Rs 180.

“There is no use of protesting against a Government. They do not care whether we have spent three or 30 days protesting against them. I work here as a daily-wage earner, who gets paid
Rs 1,200 per day. If I do not work for a day and participate in a protest, who will feed my family on that day? If I get attacked during these protests nobody will help us because everyone is miserable,” he added.

A grass cutter who has started working for the daily wage of Rs 1,000 four years ago, noted that now his salary has only increased by Rs 200 in the four years, but the daily expenses and the price of essential commodities increase day by day.

“To earn enough per month, we can’t take more than three days off. That’s great that the general public stood up and started protesting against this Government. Because, previously, when the Government increased the prices of essentials it is annually Rs 2 or 4 per product. Now they have been increasing the prices of the essentials day by day,” he added.

Udayani, who has been working as a cleaner for 16 years, noted that both she and her husband work as cleaners to feed their four children.

“I will be participating in a May Day Rally just to support the workers rights, but not in support of any political party. Since both me and my husband work, we have managed to save something for the future. If the Government can reduce prices of some of the essentials that would be a great help to the people,” she asserted.

Siththi Zareena, who was cleaning the rainwater that had pooled on the sides of the Nelum Pokuna Mawatha, noted that she hasn’t even bought anything to celebrate Eid.

“Though we work as daily wage earners for Rs 1,200, we get paid on a particular day of the month, including all the payments and pay cuts. Now I’m supposed get paid by 10th of next month. Until then the money that I have in my hand is only enough for the daily meals. I have been working as a cleaner for four years. Those days we used to get paid Rs 750 per day though it was lower than what we earn today, due to the price hike even the increased daily wage isn’t adequate to keep up with the expenses,” she added.

When Ceylon Today inquired about her political preferences, Zareena claimed that she has been continuing to vote for a particular party for which her whole family and her parents used to vote.

“It doesn’t matter whoever we vote for we will be treated the same. When the leaders, who talk about our rights during elections, get in to higher positions, they can’t remember a category like us who have work harder every day to have a meal a day to exist. All their decisions are only for the wealthy. Some have left alcohol bottles, beer cans everywhere, on the streets. Some has even vomit on it and some pee in those bottles and leave them. Though there are garbage cans in many places, sometimes people just throw the garbage and waste near or on top of the cans,” she shared some of the bitter sights she witnesses every morning.

These garbage cleaners who have to rise earlier than anyone else in the city to go to work by 5.30 a.m. to keep the city clean, bid adieu to the road by 5 p.m., for all the said work, including sewage cleanings, trash management, they get paid Rs 1,200 per day. Mostly, they are limited to a breakfast of a pol rotti and plain tea, the cheapest packet of rice for lunch and they wind up their day with a dinner of two paratas or a quarter loaf of bread with gravy. The hands that clean the city and make it look pleasent for us are in a state where they cannot at least afford a healthy meal for themselves due to the price hikes. A cake of soap is now unreachable due to the price hike.

They are the invisible heroes of this city who make sure that we will not see the urine filled bottle or vomit filled beer cans in the morning when we head to work. All these years, the May Day rallies were organised, spending thousands for the banners and flags, though they were held to talk about the rights of this working class. The only impact that they get from these rallies are the extra cleaning up of torn banners, polythene flags and the extra garbage. It is a question whether the May Day even serves its purpose when we look into a daily wage earners life.

Pix by Sarath Kumara

Story by Nabiya Vaffoor