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Municipal workers: the invisible, underpaid people who run our cities

Municipal workers: the invisible, underpaid people who run our cities

Workers in the aftermath of the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

Millions of staff clean our streets and keep our cities moving. It’s time to recognise their contribution to the everyday fabric of our urban lives

Imagine a city with no access to safe water and sanitation, where bins overflow and rubbish piles up. A city without affordable child care or transportation, where children have no safe outdoor public spaces to play and there are no green parks to enjoy. A city where pavements have cracks and holes, road traffic is a nightmare and pedestrians and cyclists are not safe. Without these, and many other essential urban services, cities collapse, local economies cannot run and inhabitants suffer a lower quality of life.

And when people are in trouble, they turn to their closest level of government – their city. After Ecuador’s 2016 devastating earthquake , while national government was still assessing the casualties and damage, municipal workers were already digging through the rubble. Diego Celorio, a water worker in Pedernales city, saw people trapped in a car still alive. He and his colleagues rushed to get machines from their municipal store to rescue them. At that time, there were no specialists or experts but , Celerio and his colleagues managed to save 20 lives.

Research by the Canadian Union of Public Employees  has identified more than 80,000 different categories  of local government work. Yet these workers are barely noticed and are usually undervalued.

Municipal workers make up the bulk of public sector employees worldwide, but there are few reliable statistics about them. A 2016 OECD study  counted more than 500,000 municipal-level governments around the world. But the International Labour Organization statistics database  has partial local government employment data for only about 33 countries, representing approximately 65 million workers, and that does not include China or India.

Within the UN system, only central governments are acknowledged in global policy making. Local governments have little say in global tax, investment and trade deals, even though these often have a direct impact on their cities, communities and finances.

Precarious employment, poverty wages, lack of training and safety equipment and attacks on trade union rights are daily realities for these workers in many countries. After a 17-year long struggle, the municipal workers of Buenos Aires won a major victory in 2015 with the Paritarias Act . Before this law, mayors had feudal-like powers over municipal workers and could unilaterally determine wages, hirings and firings, and labour relations, according to Hernán Doval, municipal union leader and politician. The law sets professional rules and procedures for recruitment, transfers and dismissals, caps casual employment, established a living wage, and mandates mayors to negotiate with municipal labour unions.

The Public Services International union has chosen 31 October - UN World Cities Day  - to launch a campaign  during our world congress in Geneva , to raise awareness about the work of municipal and local government public service professionals who deliver these essential services.

Our experience with government in our everyday lives happens at the local level. So the next time you enjoy a stroll along a clean street, turn on a tap and safe water comes out, or lie on the lawn in a park to read a book, spare a thought for and appreciate the municipal workers who make your city happen.


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