In the early hours of an ordinary day, Ahmed, a sanitation worker departed his humble abode, not in his typical worker’s attire, but in an ensemble fit for a corporate executive – a sleek black suit, crisply pressed white shirt, and gleaming shoes. Moreover, his destination isn’t a shiny glass-fronted office building but a palatial residence, the home of a former governor turned parliamentarian: despite his official working position, Ahmed is employed at a politician’s house, who therefore managed to conceal this employment to avoid paying for his salaryThis intriguing shift in the workplace typifies an unprecedented trend of ‘ghost’ or ‘phantom’ workers, present not only in Iraq’s municipal, military, and security sectors but penetrating deeply into the households of influential politicians.

Ahmed is just the tip of the iceberg. There exists a network of such phantom workers, previously employed for public service, who are now embedded in the private lives of top-tier officials, receiving state salaries while serving domestic roles. Other workers, like Ahmed, have been enlisted into this private service, turning official homes and offices into their new workplaces.

Despite their official job titles, these sanitation workers face societal disdain and indifference, rooted in cultural biases that devalue their labour. Ahmed’s experience paints a vivid picture of this societal neglect. He expresses how they are often avoided in public spaces, indicative of the lack of respect for their profession. Through the lens of an inside source, this investigation sheds light on how societal prejudice and political corruption have intertwined, leading to the exploitation of an already marginalised segment of society – the sanitation workers, who continue to toil away, earning one of the lowest state salaries of just 320,000 dinars (around 220 dollars) per month.

The plight of sanitation workers continues to worsen as a large proportion of them operate devoid of proper equipment. Usually seen in substandard grey uniforms or personal attire with faces hidden behind makeshift scarves, these workers face a heightened risk of accidents. Notably, this danger escalates at night due to the glaring lack of high-visibility jackets that are an essential part of safety gear in numerous countries for road workers.

In an unexpected turn of events, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani welcomed a delegation of these workers at the Government Palace, all sporting official uniforms and orange vests – an unfamiliar spectacle for the average citizen. The meeting was reported to address the hardships of these sanitation workers, touching upon topics like wages and operational procedures.

Basem Khashan, a member of the Parliamentary Integrity Committee, revealed to The Red Line that corruption has deeply infiltrated the issue of sanitation workers. He confessed to previously having initiated legal proceedings regarding the same issue, but lamented that the correct procedures were not adequately followed.

Khashan also shed light on the disturbing trend of sanitation workers being redirected from their original roles and positioned in different departments or even the homes of officials. Such practices were aggravated by fraudulent activities involving registration of non-existent workers to syphon off their salaries. He cited an outrageous example from Diwaniya Governorate, where a doctor’s name was falsely registered as a sanitation worker, allowing someone to illicitly collect his salary.

Highlighting the corrupted system behind salary distribution, Khashan explained how a single individual responsible for the workers’ welfare manipulates the entire salary payment process. In control of all the salaries, this person has the liberty to distribute them as he wishes, an open door to fraudulent practices and embezzlement. Despite these grim circumstances, Khashan assured he would soon work to bring the case to justice court , signalling hope for a potential investigation.

Adding to the grim picture, Iraqi cities remain beleaguered by mounting garbage piles, and stagnant rainwater-filled potholes turning into virus breeding grounds. Dusty and rarely cleaned streets further worsen the situation. The recurring explanation from municipalities is the shortage of sanitation workers or the absence of necessary cleaning equipment.

Every day,  Baghdad tons of garbage ar collected, according to the city’s municipal body.Municipal spokesperson, Mohammed Al-Rubai delved into the specifics, disclosing that food leftovers, a form of organic waste, comprise about 65% of the overall garbage, with non-organic substances making up the rest.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of a main thoroughfare in Dhi Qar, sanitation workers found themselves enshrouded in a choking cloud of dust stirred up by a hastily moving vehicle, as they gathered trash from a nearby eatery. Among these workers was Mohammed Hussein, who holds a precarious job from the municipality. The occasional worker  awaits a permanent employment status. For The Red Line, he expressed his opinion on the issue street hygiene management:.”The protocol once included street sweeping and washing, but the modus operandi has changed. Now, our focus is on collecting discarded containers from homes or accumulated waste in streets and public squares. Once, we were more in number, but many have since vanished.“, explained. 

Hussein hinted at, but did not directly confirm, the possibility of his co-workers being transferred to alternate departments or offices. Denying these claims,  Dhi Qar’s deputy governor Abbas Jaber,o suggested that sanitation workers were simply relocated in order to provide services at residences of officials or are occasionally stationed in other departments and offices, rather than find themselves embroiled in a scheme to syphon salaries out of the government’s budget.

The plight of Iraq’s sanitation workers is highly symbolic of the country’s larger issues – inadequate public services, corruption, and a lack of oversight and regulation. Their stories bear witness to a system under strain, one that needs comprehensive reform for the workers’ wellbeing and the country’s overall health. For change to happen, governmental transparency, anti-corruption efforts, and sufficient funding for public services must be prioritized. However, meaningful change doesn’t stop at policy reform; it extends to societal perception. Sanitation work is vital for maintaining the cleanliness and health of our cities. As such, these workers should be afforded the respect, safety, and compensation their roles merit.

VIANabaa Mushreq ,Sam Mahmood ,Mohammed Shiaa ALZAIDAWI