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A peek at the lives of road sweepers in Bangkok, and their work on the streets of the capital city of a country that is ranked top in the world in road fatalities. We look at safety policies and the rewards for risking danger on the day that Thai society woke up to road safety, and when road sweepers lose their lives every year.

Traffic on Ratchadamnoen Avenue (Source: Chanakarn Laosarakham)

The death of Dr Waraluck Supawatjariyakul (Doctor Kratai) on 21 January 2022, caused a surge of interest in the problem of road safety in Thailand. The fact that vehicles are beginning to slow down to let people cross the street and the long-accumulated dissatisfaction with car users on the part of pedestrians have led to the social trend of reclaiming pedestrian crossings, a clear concrete change arising from the loss of one member of society.

A day after Doctor Kratai’s accident, Naree Chaisena, 59, an employee of the Public Cleansing Section of Bang Khun Thian District, an outstanding employee who had just been awarded a two-step salary rise, was carrying out her sweeping duties on the frontage road of the western Bangkok outer ring road when she was hit by a car and killed at 05.00. Although this did not make the same social waves as the first case, her name was remembered by civil society organizations and went a viral on social media in a minor way.

This exemplifies one aspect of the danger on Thailand’s roads whose death rate has attracted global recognition and concern. Statistics on road accidents in 2018 by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that Thailand has the seventh highest rate of traffic-related deaths in the world, with a death rate of 32.7 people per 100,000 population (data collected in 2016), an increase from 19.6 people per 100,000 population in 2007. 

A series of WHO reports released in 2018 found that if only the deaths of motorcyclists were considered, Thailand would be ranked first in the world with a rate of 24.3 per 100,000 population, while the rate for pedestrians was 2.5 per 100,000 population. 

Death from aside (the street)

The dangers on the road are not limited to drivers but also risk passers-by and officials who work on the streets. This is not something that the state is not aware of.

Phanuwat Onthet, Director of the Waste Management Service at the Waste and Refuse Management Office of the Environment Department of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), said that the main cause of road sweeper deaths is motorcycle and automobile traffic, often caused by drunk driving. And the dangers that street-sweepers face do not come just from traffic.

They also face physical assault by drunks or mentally ill people, getting knifed, falling, being bitten by insects and animals, splattered by strange objects, or even finding a bomb in a trash can.

Regarding safety measures, Panuwat said that the Office has directed supervisors to be strict with the sweepers particularly in risky areas when it is dark. They have changed the sweeper’s uniform to reflect light more clearly, and have supervisors patrol various roads.

To reduce accidents, they have hired road sweeping machines for use on major roads and the road surfaces of all bridges and tunnels. Street sweepers will be responsible only for footpaths, the alleys that the machine can't reach, or spots where drainpipes are clogged.

A file photo of Soi Chula 12 Street at dusk.

According to the most recent data from the Environment Department's Waste and Refuse Management Office, an average of 4 staff per year died while on the job between 2014 and 2017. In 2017-2022, the average decreased to 1 per year, with three garbage collectors killed in 2022.

Data from the BMA’s Environment Department shows that the BMA has a total of 10,771 road sweepers, comprising 7,142 permanent employees and 3,629 temporary employees, with 90% females, more than males who mostly work in the refuse collection section.

In terms of responsibilities and duties, one sweeper is responsible for maintaining cleanliness for a distance of 500-1,000 meters of roadway on average. They are also responsible for patrolling their area of responsibility and giving advice on garbage disposal to people who often have problems with fly-tipping in banned areas. The work is split into 2 shifts, 5.00-12.00 and 13.00-20.00.

Road sweepers are BMA employees, divided into permanent and temporary employees. The temporary employees will be taken care of by the Social Security Fund (SSF). If they get sick or have an accident, they will be taken care of by the SSF or BMA hospitals and can be reimbursed for medical expenses for the family (children, parents, and spouse). The starting salary is 12,000 baht per month.  

In the case of death while on duty, funeral expenses are paid from the final salary, and no pension is given but they will receive money from the provident fund instead.

Permanent employees enjoy the same welfare as government officials. The maximum monthly wage is 21,000 baht. Funeral expenses are reimbursed at 3 times the last salary in the event of death, whether caused by accident or not. And if they die as a result of an accident, the pension will be 30 times their salary. 

If a permanent employee dies while off duty, they will receive a pension. Permanent employees receive are 2 hi-vis work uniforms a year and 1 set of safety gear such as reflective vests, boots and gloves per year.

Voices from workers; ‘it's safer, but still can be more’

Even if the safety guidelines have improved, the workplace is always unpredictable and Bangkok roads are still dangerous. Some words from some road sweepers still reflect the insecurity of their lives.

“We don’t know how to talk about this, but when we sweep, we have to watch out and be careful. If there is a car coming, we have to dodge up on the sidewalk.”

Phon (pseudonym), a road sweeper who has worked for more than 10 years, said that a hi-vis vest was provided only 1-2 years ago. She has to be careful while sweeping during the day and night, but more so in the night time.

Phon also mentioned that they have no traffic cones that they could use to enlarge the safe area for work. They are used only for road damage. However, all cleaning equipment can be requisitioned at any time.

"They look after us well. We are OK with the welfare state since our family members can get reimbursed if we are permanent employees."

Another road sweeper, Pla (pseudonym), said she was unsure if the risks were worth the benefits because road-sweeping always has the risk of encountering a speeding car. So she has to be careful for herself to some extent. She said since she started worked, sometimes she was grazed by a car, but not seriously.

“Nobody wants an accident to happen. Everyone loves their own life.

"I want the relevant agencies to take action on road safety and vehicles, so we can work faster,” said Pla.

Kanchanaphorn Teeruk and Veeraphattra Siangyen are students majoring in Communication Arts from the Faculty of Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University

This article is translated into English by Viyada Nokjaisua, a college student from the Faculty of Humanity in English Major, Srinakharinwirot University.

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