April 30, 2019

Labour Day May 1: Inside Kigali’s “Slavery” Cleaning Industry


Earning peanuts, thousands of these women and men you see with brooms on Kigali’s streets every day, seven days – all year, are the ones who have made it get global accolades. They work from 6am to 5pm.

Fifty-five year old Mujawamariya has been sweeping Kigali’s streets for 22 years, YES, since 1997. All her six children were born while she worked this job.

Today, Mujawamariya earns Rwf 30,000 monthly from her employer, a private company – one of the more than 100 companies that have been contracted by the City of Kigali and the districts to maintain their spotless streets and providing general cleaning services.

From this monthly pay, the company deducts Rwf 900 as her health insurance cover – making Mujawamariya a lucky one, as not all employees are given health insurance. They have to pay for themselves.

The single mother Mujawamariya then pays Rwf10,000 as rent for her one-roomed mud-house, which has no electricity.

The same salary has to cover tuition for the children, not to mention the food and clothing. And because the income is so little, her daughter has left school to find work.

Government is providing free primary education, but associated costs like Parents’ Teachers Association commonly known as PTA and other obligatory expenses like books and food at school, are too much for Mujawamariya. So, some of the kids are not in school.

Mujawamariya’s story is typical of thousands of women and men you see with brooms on Kigali’s streets every day, seven days – all year. She works from 6am to 5pm.

As Rwanda joins the world to mark international labour day May 1, The Chronicles is detailing the plight of these cleaners, despite the industry being worth billions of Francs.

There is no minimum wage in Rwanda. In July last year, Parliament enacted a new labour law which left it to the Minister of Labour to set a minimum wage through a ministerial order, that is yet to be done.

The only existing reference to a minimum wage is that set in the 1974 law which put it at Rwf 100 per day. Even considering inflationary changes, this amount remains extremely small.

Kigali City has won global acclaim for cleanliness. Every visitor finds meticulously neat roads, streets and neighbourhoods. The clean Kigali comes courtesy of a combination of monthly ‘umuganda’, garbage collection trucks and an army of cleaners working for private companies.

For the past nearly 10 years, cleaning Kigali – including roads, government and private facilities such as offices, has been liberalized. There is a huge industry of cleaning companies spread across Rwanda. The Chronicles conducted its investigation into the sector in the City of Kigali.

In Kigali alone, there are 135 cleaning companies and cooperatives licensed by the Rwanda Utilities and Regulatory Agency (RURA), and registered with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and Rwanda Cooperative Agency (RCA).

The difference between limited companies and cooperatives is that the latter are member-based, but usually later turn into business entities.

Employing more than 13,000 Kigalians

City of Kigali alone, excluding the districts, spends Rwf 420 million annually for cleaning the main roads in the city. This money is paid to contractors, the same cleaning companies, to keep the paved roads rubbish-free.

The districts, 3 of them in Kigali, also pay contractors to clean the small sub-urban roads in neighbourhoods.

Before the business of cleaning companies sprung, each government institution maintained staff on payroll for cleaning. The same was with the private sector. Over the years, these companies have expanded to do virtually everything.

For example, on the office block where The Chronicles is located, a private company does the cleaning. Each of the tenants pays this company a monthly fee, which is rated depending on the size of the space. This is how the situation operates all around the city’s working areas.

As a result of this consolidation of services provided by the cleaning companies, each has large numbers of permanent employees.

This waste collection truck belongs to Agruni, one of the companies making billions from garbage

Despite repeated engagement by The Chronicles, neither Kigali city nor the other government agencies charged with regulating the sector could provide the exact number of individual cleaners in the industry.

Based on data from a sample of the cleaning companies and some cooperatives, we found that all the cleaning companies employ on average at least 100 employees. Some like AGRUNI LTD has 325 employees. Some cooperatives employ more cleaners.

Combining all the companies, the industry is employing up to 13,600 Kigalians.

Apart from hands-on cleaning with brooms, some of the companies are specialized only in garbage collection in homes, offices and on the streets.

Each home or office in Kigali, depending on the neighbourhood, pays a monthly fee to cleaning company in that specific area for garbage. The prices are set by regulations, based on social categories called “Ubudehe”, from the district administration, to prevent overpricing.

The Chronicles accessed a copy determining prices in Mageragere sector of Nyarugenge district. The lowest households pay Rwf 2,300, as others pay Rwf 4600 and Rwf 6900 for homes considered well-to-do.

Households in some parts of Nyarugenge district pay Rwf 1,800 for first category, Rwf 3600 for the second category and Rwf 5300 – the third category defined as ‘rich people’.

In Gasabo district, the different sectors have also set various prices for the households ranging between Rwf 1,700 and 5,000.

For Kicukiro district, Gahanga sector for example charges Rwf 1,800 for the lowest category – to Rwf 7500 and Rwf 11,200 for the rich families living in huge homes.

However, in the same district, residents in some areas pay much less.

Kigali’s strict regulations prescribe that it is mandatory for the cleaning companies to collect garbage four time in a month – usually Monday. However, different areas have own schedule agreed upon by the company.

Behind this orderly flow of garbage and money, is a network of 135 companies. Some have been around for years – have huge contracts from different districts and sectors.

On the list includes New Life Cleaning Services – believed to be one of the biggest or even the most dominant player, which actually rivals with COPED LTD. The others are INEMA Cleaning services, N&S God cleaning Ltd, and AGRUNI LTD.

COPED Ltd has 150 cleaners and supervisors, while AGRUNI Ltd covers 325 employees, whereas N&S God cleaning Ltd has 60 people on its payroll.

AGRUNI Ltd and COPED Ltd are also involved in recycling and transforming waste into other products. AGRUNI Ltd even makes pavements from garbage, and also partners with another firm that makes plastic products like basins from recycled plastic waste.

Some of these companies told The Chronicles that they had invested billions to acquire different materials like garbage trucks. It is a fiercely competitive industry.

COPED LTD, told us that in 2012 when it was starting, it invested Rwf 1 billion. Another of the giant industry players is AGRUNI Ltd whose operations include waste collection and recycling. The firm told us it has invested Rwf 9 billion.

Garbage feees: Rwf 10 billion collected from homes

None of the companies was ready to provide inside details about their specific expenditures and revenues. But we managed to put together some figures from other sources.

Despite earning incomes that can barely make them feed their children, these women keep the Kigali story in the global headlines

The smallest company spends around Rwf 24million on wages for employees such as Mujawamariya highlighted at the beginning of this story. The biggest companies said they spend more than Rwf150million paying their cleaners annually.

On average, it could suggest that all the companies combined are spending on average Rwf 80 million annually on paying their staff, which translates into more than Rwf2billion annually in total expenditure for paying the employee wages.

Mujawamariya and the other employees are paid Rwf 30,000. The people who work as supervisors are paid 100,000 monthly – actually the highest paid, with the exception of the directors who are usually family members of the company owner.

According to the 2012 national census, Kigali had 282,100 households, which could have grown to over 300,000 households today.

The cleaning companies are collecting a total of over Rwf750m every month from homes alone, excluding what they collect from cleaning offices, and the streets – paid for by City of Kigali or district authorities.

In other words, in a typical year like 2018, the companies collected up to Rwf 10 billion from homes as garbage fees.

The business is so profitable that, according industry sources, the owner of New Life Cleaning Services set up this company after another called Royal Cleaning Services. He transferred this latter one to a family member.

The companies are making millions in collections and contract fees from government and big private companies that have large premises, but the cleaning companies pay peanuts to their employees.

As we spoke to Mujawamariya, during her evening shift that lasts several hours into darkness, she looked restless. She answers questions and then moves away.

“The owner warned us that he will dismiss anyone who talks to the media,” she said insisting that it is not good for their job security to talk to The Chronicles.

“We are treated like mayibobo,” added Mujawamariya, referring to local word used to mean street kids.

Another of her colleagues Mukamana Spesciose is also paid Rwf 30,000, including the mandatory Rwf 900 deduction for health insurance. Like Mujawamariya and Mukamana, we have established that all low wage earners are paid by hand. They collect their money from supervisors.

“They told us that if their contract period is not increased they will not increase our salary,” she said, but has no idea how her company makes money.

Then there is Marriam, in her 50s working for INEMA Cleaning Services. Her payment, also done by hand and not through a bank, is Rwf 40,000 – slightly above many of her counterparts in the same job.

However, considering the needs, it barely makes ends meet. “When you are hungry, you can do any job without looking at the payment,” she said.

“Is President Paul Kagame aware?”

Another of the waste collection companies. Even though some companies have designated trucks, others have ones like these improvised for garbage collection. The people who work on them have to live with the stench as it rolls through neighbhoods

Cleaning companies’ managers who agreed to speak to The Chronicles have varying explanations as to why they pay what some cleaning employees call “slavery” wages.

Some managers said many of the people who enjoy their services do not pay cleaning fees. Other managers said Kigali city and districts do not accept to give them long term contracts so they are never sure if they will keep the contract in the coming year.

In addition to short contracts, some companies say the payments often delay thereby affecting every aspect of their businesses. When they aren’t paid in time, the cleaners enduring the scotching sun or rain on the roads, go without wages. The companies also add that they cannot invest for long term growth.

Since 2017, City of Kigali administration has only contracted cleaning and waste management companies for a one year. It can be renewed or not. Many private companies or state agencies that need cleaning services also use the one-year contract system.

“Very often when contracts end, renewing becomes a problem. When it is not renewed, we lose money because some entities do not pay what they owe us,” said Mitali Diogene, the managing director of Agruni company.

He added, “But if we can have a contract of five to 10 years it should help our profession as we can invest freely.”

Ntambara Steven, the owner of N&S God Cleaning Ltd, said they are always in wrangles with employees over delayed pay which is caused by late pay for their servicess.

A manager at COPED Ltd, considered one of the biggest cleaning and waste management companies, said they can be able to obtain bank loans to keep their businesses but cannot risk because of the unstable contracts.

City of Kigali authorities are more concerned about making sure the cleaners on the streets are in their uniforms, when asked if they are aware of the challenges the women like Mujawamariya and others face.

“In our recent inspection, we found some cleaning workers who have been given uniforms do not wear them saying that they feel uncomfortable in them,” said Patricie Mukangarambe, official in charge of hygiene at the City of Kigali.

Busabizwa Parfait, the Vice Mayor City of Kigali in charge of economic development, dismissed claims that the city delays paying its contractors.

“For us at City of Kigali, if a company gives us an invoice we pay them immediately,” he said.

“We can’t tolerate any one who doesn’t pay others when that pay is what they survive one. We are strengthening systems in the city to avoid such cases. I encourage the districts to also make sure they pay cleaning contractors on time. The same plea goes to all stakeholders who require cleaning services.”

As indicated earlier in this story, the City alone puts Rwf 420 million annually for cleaning main roads. It is unclear if that budget is paid out to a single firm or several of them.

A 2016 report by UN HABITAT, ranked Kigali in the top cleanest cities of Africa.

Behind these shiny streets, though, lays an army of cleaners who can barely eat three meals a day.

“Our work has earned this country awards. I become sad when I think about whether President Kagame is aware of this miserable life we live,” said Mujawanariya, who looks way older than her age.


2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this informative article.
    It is only fair to pay the living wage for these hardworking men and women who earn our city and country, awards.

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