Di Price works as a road sweeper for Lambeth Council in South London. She has a nine year old son, Matthew, and lives on a council estate. She was interviewed by Mary Phillips.
How did I get this job? Well, I was working in a hospital at the time. It was hard work with a lot of responsibility (I was in the sterilising department) for low wages. I had to travel a long way and didn’t get home till late, which was no good for my small son.
Then one day I saw a man sweeping the roads and I asked him about getting a job.
There are 20 women road sweepers in Lambeth now, out of a total of 240. And we all used to work from North Street depot, a little sub depot, well out of the way. Now the council has finally decided to implement the Sex Discrimination Act and opened up seven of the depots. They had always said it was too difficult because of toilet facilities and so on.
With road sweeping it’s an early start in the morning. We started at North Street at half past seven, but in the winter months you started at half past six. You have what’s called frost call, and then there’s an emergency service (that’s a 24-hour full cover, gritting the road etc. You can be called out at three o’clock in the morning.) I decided this year that they could put my name down for it.
You get a certain amount of grit that covers the week. There are grit boxes at the side of the road – actually its rock salt – and then they have a gritting lorry. They bring it round full of grit and you jump up on the lorry and throw it off, trying not to hit people. Last year they weren’t even ready for it and they ran out of rock salt. You had to break the ice up with shovels.
Mostly we clean the streets, sweeping them from one end to the other, clearing the gutters, picking up litter with a shovel, and even unblocking drains with a thing like a grappling hook. We also have to pull out weeds.
The Council is so mean: the buckets we use have holes in them so that people can’t steal them! Even the bags for rubbish have ‘For Council Use Only’ written on the sides.
We’re issued with boiler suits, donkey jackets, and wellies. Usually they’re too big. We have said something about it several times. They just seem to think that it’s a bit unfortunate.
On average I take home £54 for a 40 hour week. We were squatting when we got the flat on Tulse Hill Estate, under the hard-to-let scheme. It used to be £24.28 a fortnight, and now it’s gone up. On top of the rates it’ll mean an increase of £3. If you’re on what I’d call ‘equal low pay’ you can’t afford the flat on your own.
The woman next door looks after Matthew and when I worked at North Street that cost me £10 a week. In the school holidays I send him to my mother in Cornwall. If I couldn’t do that obviously I couldn’t work. I’d go mad. I can’t afford to go down there. It costs me £35. And what would happen if Matthew gets sick? I wouldn’t get paid then.
As the parent you’ve got the ultimate responsibility. The onus is on you. It seems that if you can’t carry out an obligation to look after your child there’s something wrong with you.
It’s bad if you’re ill. You couldn’t have a week in bed with ‘flu, because of the child. There should be more facilities available for working women in Lambeth, like nurseries. Most of the women have children. Some have got four or five kids. They often have to pay a baby minder. It’s far better to have a well run, well supervised nursery than some baby minder (I’m not getting at baby minders). Far more women would be able to work knowing that their kids were well looked after. Because most women have to work now.
We’re in the Transport and General Workers Union, and the meetings are outside working hours. There’s no women’s section in our union. We ought to try and get one.
There’s not many women blue-collar workers in Lambeth Council. There’s two painters and decorators, I think, and a few women in the parks. They’re all very isolated.
Do I like the job? I do it for the money, not the funny. You get stared at, and people come up to you and ask if you enjoy it. I say to them, ‘Well, would you?’
Women’s Voice 40 (1980)