I had already been told about Mel. Mel was already famous! She was one of the first women ever to be a bin collector in Leeds for the Council, some 20 odd years ago, and she had been interviewed a few times because of it. I couldn’t wait to meet her. Tousled blonde hair and a beautiful grin, accompanied by her bright orange uniform, was my first image of her.
Mel’s story was at first “Nothing changed for me really during the pandemic she would say “I still worked six days a week, sometimes seven, the streets were emptier and the bins were heavier, because everyone was at home. We didn’t get as much abuse either because there is no one about. Apart from that it was pretty much the same for me. People still needed the bins collecting.
I live alone, so I prefer to be at work anyway, I love my work, I love being with the lads, with the whole team really, on the trucks and back at the yard”
She would tell me about her early army life, which lead her to driving the big trucks. She seemed to be a tough lady with a tough exterior with a tough job!
I thought that her story was incredible until I learned that it was to get even more interesting. Mel’s daughter Jemma also works on the bins – a mother and daughter team no less.
I met Jemma and her two lovely children in a park in Leeds with Mel, on a lovely afternoon as things were beginning to open up. Jemma had a beautiful smile, and she always looked at her mother which such love.
As she talked about her work and her life during the pandemic she took me on a heartbreaking journey as she explained the pressures she had faced during the pandemic. Jemma was a single parent who relied on her kids other grandparents to look after them while she worked. She had to work.
Because of the grandparent’s age they had to isolate so her young son did too, which meant Jemma could only visit him, and see him through a window for about 3 months. She cried when she talked of this time. She also talked of the mental health issues she had suffered, and how work had helped her to overcome some of the worse times. She would say “you have to keep going that’s all there is to it” and she would smile that smile.
However heartbreaking that story was, or the one about the jumping rats that they had to face every day, or even the ridiculous early morning starts that they had to endure, for me it was when Mel shared her story of her mental health issues, and the fact that she had tried to take her own life, and then she said this.
‘No one knows what anyone is going through” she said “When things have opened up, we have all gone back to normal, and the other thing that has gone back to normal is all the abuse we get, and sometimes that gets to me – I am only doing my job, a job many do not want to do. They called us key workers, but they don’t treat us like that. We kept going throughout the whole nightmare of Covid; it seems crazy that people forget all that so quickly. On my bad days the abuse we sometimes get from the public really affects me, the abuse is always more personal when it is a woman, so maybe people should think twice before they shout at us, like I say you never know what anyone is going through”
Mel and her daughter Jemma are people that Leeds and indeed the human race should be so proud of. Fearless women.