By Liam Higgins
There’s a reason why a recent edition of a popular travel guide called Cuenca the cleanest city in Latin America. Actually, there are 230 reasons. They are the city’s street cleaners, armed with brooms, dust pans and garbage carts, most of them begin each work day at 4 a.m.
Employed by independent contractors who, in turn, are contractors with Cuenca’s public waste management company, EMAC, the street cleaners work rain or shine and recently, on a morning when the temperature dipped to near freezing. Each has a specific territory and must be finished by 7 a.m.
They are replaced by a small daytime crew that work til 3 p.m.
“It’s hard work,” says Fernanda Ruiz, who gets up every morning at 3 to prepare for her shift. “We have to work fast since we never know what we’ll find. Sometimes dogs get into the trash and sometimes drunks throw their bottles all over.”
María Ayllón agrees and says she arrives at her assigned area at the intersection of Presidente Borrero and Sangurima 15 to 20 minutes before her shift begins. She works her way to Calle Larga by the end of her shift. Her husband, Gerardo Vergara, works another nearby territory.
All street cleaners are expected to meet established standards for cleanliness in their area. EMAC does routine checks and if it finds an area less than ship-shape, the cleaner will be woken up with a phone call. “There’s pressure,” says Ruiz, “but I think they’re fair. They understand that sometimes we run into situations that are hard to handle.”
One hazard that almost all street cleaners have faced are drunks. “They pass out on the sidewalk and sometimes they’re lying on trash and bottles,” says Raul Iglesias. “And then there’s the vomit and even worse. Sometimes they even attack us and we have to call the police. I was cut once by a drunk with a broken bottle and had to go to the emergency room.”
Two women workers say they were attacked by men in attempted sexual assaults. One was saved by a taxi driver who showed up as the men grabbed her while the other was able to run to safety.
Another hazard, according to Ruiz, are dogs. “There are more mean dogs out at that time of morning for some reason, and we have all had to fight them off with our carts and brooms.
Until recently, street cleaners were allowed to have their own dogs with them for protection. New EMAC rules, however, have ended the practice.
All street cleaners say they wish the public did a better job of sorting trash and putting it out on the proper days. “Some people are just messy and think it is our job to clean up after them,” says Maria Ullaguari, 35, who supports two young children with her job. “Other people are just mean and throw trash and garbage at us to clean up.”
Ruiz says she has seen the worst of the human race in her years as a cleaner. “The drunks, the crazies, the kids sniffing glue. Of course, I’ve seen worse.”
Jaime Ortiz, EMAC manager, says the street cleaners do a good job. “It’s hard work and sometimes dangerous and we appreciate their dedication. We all understand that they are the reason that Cuenca is so clean.”
Ortiz says the street cleaners collect almost 20% of the 400 tons of garbage collected daily in Cuenca.