Authorities in Yemen are yet to resolve the “marginalization” of the minority Akhdam people, weeks after thousands protested in the capital Sana’a over low pay and lack of work contracts, say community members.
“The Akhdam are not simply second class citizens,” a protester said from his tent in Change Square. “They are more like fifth or sixth class citizens; the lowest class in the whole republic.”
Despite speaking Arabic and practising Islam in the country for over 1,000 years, the Akhdam, who prefer to be called Al Muhamasheen, or “marginalized ones”, have never felt a part of the majority.
The most visible marker of the Akhdam’s status in Yemeni society is the menial occupations they perform. Men roam the streets on 10-hour shifts sweeping and collecting rubbish, while women and children collect up cans and bottles and beg for handouts.
Popular myth traces their arrival in Yemen to the 5th or 6th century, when the group’s Ethiopian ancestors crossed the Red Sea in a failed bid to conquer the southern corner of the Arabian peninsula.
After the arrival of Islam, so the myth goes, Muslim rulers defeated the Ethiopian army and sent them into exile. The ones who stayed were enslaved and relegated to the fringes of society, where they have remained despite the replacement in 1962 of a caste-like Imamate with the egalitarian promises of a modern state. They are thought to number around one million, mostly concentrated in urban slums in Taiz and Sana’a.
The prospect of democratic reforms envisaged in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan which pulled Yemen from the brink of civil war in 2012 raised hopes that the situation would improve for the Akhdam people, but little has happened yet.
In early April 2012, for the second time in as many months, some 4,000 street sweepers in the capital went on strike in protest over unfulfilled promises by the government to raise their pay and extend their daily contracts. After only a few days off the job, Sana’a’s streets became like an urban landfill site, forcing interim Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa to negotiate with the disenfranchized group.
Nabil, a 30-year-old street sweeper living in Mukhayyim Aser, an Akhdam slum near the presidential palace, told IRIN a day after the prime minister promised permanent contracts to the temporary workers, “Basindawa has not changed anything…
“My friend has been working as a street sweeper for 35 years and still does not have a job contract,” he added. “That’s why we’re on strike.”
One prominent Akhdam is Nabil Al Maktari, president of the Yemeni Organization Against Slavery and Discrimination. He spent 2011 protesting alongside thousands of other Yemenis - students, professors, soldiers and political activists - demanding the overthrow of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government.
According to Maktari, however, the new government has ceded some ground to the street sweepers. At the end of 2011, the prime minister’s office gave 50,000 riyals (US$235) to local Akhdam chiefs who represent the cleaners and provide them with protection. “But the workers never saw that money,” he said.
Even Saleh yielded to the workers’ demands, Maktari said, increasing their daily pay to 800 riyals ($3.75) at the onset of the Yemeni Spring in 2011. But despite the government’s concessions, Maktari said, “the street sweepers still have no holidays, not even during Eid. And if a tribal person kills a Khadem [member of the Akhdam community; which happened several times during the Yemeni protests] there is no way for his family to seek justice. Even though they’re Yemeni citizens, no laws exist for these crimes.”
Many Akhdam view the stop-gap measures by Saleh and Basindawa with suspicion. An elder in the Al Hasaba slum, in a pocket of Sana’a which saw some of the heaviest fighting during last year’s revolts, said officials from Saleh’s regime paid him and his neighbours to carry pro-Saleh signs at the beginning of the uprisings. “They don’t help us until they need help,” he said.
Government officials say there is “no discrimination” against the Akhdam and that they are like every other Yemeni before the law; and they point to the construction of public housing for the Akhdam in Sana’a’s Sawan area as proof.
Mohammed Al Eryani, assistant deputy mayor of Sana’a, told IRIN the Akhdam are perhaps the only employees of the central government who do not have benefits like permanent contracts and pensions.
While admitting the Akhdam are targets of some of the worst racism in the country, Eryani said the reason they have never been awarded contracts or other benefits is because they are unreliable. “One day a Khadem may wake up to find that his car won’t start, so he will spend the day fixing it instead of going into work.”
Asked whether the plight of the Akhdam would improve under the new government, a young street sweeper named Khaled in Mukhayyim Aser said: “So far, we haven’t seen any changes. Things have been almost the same as before the revolution got started. So to answer your question, no.”
A woman standing next to him said, “maybe”.