Thursday, August 6, 2020

Food handlers still double as toilet cleaners as coronavirus knocks at all border gates

Accustomed to little or no oversight from municipal public health inspectors, most restaurant owners still use waiting staff to clean toilets – some badly numbered-two’ed – in the middle of a worldwide pandemic whose science is not even fully determined.

The science on how coronavirus can be transmitted through food has not been fully explained but one of the guidelines issued by the government prohibits the serving of food to mourners at a funeral. This particular guideline implicates food in the transmission of a virus that has killed thousands of people across the globe and still has no known cure.

While members of the public would be protected with regard to funerals, some restaurants could possibly compromise public health on account of a long-standing practice that municipal public health inspectors typically overlook. The practice is of waiting staff that, on account of loosely enforced labour laws, also double as cleaners. In terms of the law, waiting staff should never have anything to do with toilets in the line of duty because they are waiters/waitresses and not cleaners. However, they end up doing cleaning chores and in some instances, that happens while they are waiting to deliver food orders to customers. It is also common practice for waiting staff to clean up the vomit of drunk customers and serve food shortly thereafter.

Sunday Standard has been able to establish that as late as Friday evening when it went to press, nothing had changed about this situation – waiting staff at some high-end restaurants in Gaborone were still cleaning toilets in between delivering food orders. What makes this situation even more worrisome is that restaurants are some of the businesses that will remain open during a period in which some businesses will be locked down. Speaking at a Mass Media Complex press conference on Thursday, the Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Peggy Serame, said that while sit-downs will be prohibited during the lockdown, restaurants will be permitted to continue operating but for shorter trading hours. This means that the take-away food that patrons will be ordering will still be prepared by waiting staff who double as toilet cleaners.

Framers of the Food Control Act, which was inherited from the United Kingdom, never conceived of a situation in which waiting staff could also double as toilet cleaners. The closest the Act comes to erecting legal guardrails against such situation is found in provisions of Section 12 (5) which generally says that “Any person who sells, prepares, packages or stores for sale any food under unhygienic conditions shall be guilty of an offence.” A safety, health and environment professional whom Sunday Standard reviewed this Act with says that on a common-sense basis, one can’t fathom a situation in which those tasks are paired. While that appears to have been the thinking in other jurisdictions, there is clear recognition of the fact that the presence of those who handle food in toilets should only be minimal and occur naturally. Australian and New Zealand food safety standards say that outer protective clothing worn in food handling areas “should be removed for toilet and other breaks.” That is because “during toilet activities, hands can become highly contaminated with pathogens that can cause foodborne illness if they are transferred to food.” On the other hand, waiting staff in Botswana wear the same clothes when serving food and cleaning toilets.

Restaurant owners are taking advantage of a situation in which the enforcement of labour law is weak. They expand the job description of desperate waiting staff to include duties that they shouldn’t have to do at all.

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Sunday Standard August 2 – 8

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of August 2 - 8, 2020.