ISLAMABAD: During the pandemic, sanitation workers had been praised as ‘Covid warriors’ in some nations but WaterAid has found many of these workers in developing countries, including Pakistan, have been forgotten, underpaid, unprotected and left to fend for themselves.

Research carried out by WaterAid at the start of the pandemic on the safety and wellbeing of those who cleared and disposed of fecal waste revealed hazardous working conditions, a dangerous lack of personnel protection equipment, poor training as well as loss of income for millions.

According to the research published by WaterAid, Pakistan related findings of the report released ahead of World Toilet Day on November 19 showed that half of the sanitation workers who were interviewed faced challenges in meeting their daily expenses. Similarly, only half of the sanitation workers were able to access the social security measures introduced by the government.

WaterAid findings show sanitation workers are often marginalised, stigmatised and shunned in Pakistan

The report said sanitation workers included people who cleaned toilets and sewers, emptied latrine pits and septic tanks and operated pumping stations and treatment plants as well as those who cleared fecal waste manually, swept rubbish and transported fecal sludge.

Despite providing a vital service of ensuring human waste was cleared, stored and disposed of safely, the sanitation workers were often marginalised, stigmatised and shunned as a result of their job. “Many have worked on the frontline of the pandemic throughout national lockdowns in hospitals and quarantine centres and in the heart of communities with poor access to safe water, decent sanitation and good hygiene facilities.

Tasleem Mai, 50, from Muzzafargarh, whose case study was part of the report, provided for her family of 12 and had been a sanitary worker for 25 years. She took on the job since there was no other work opportunity available. She rarely received or used any protective equipment despite the risks of infection or accidents. The study also said she knew the importance of her role but said: “We [sanitary workers] always have to compromise our dignity and personal wellbeing to do the job. We are an integral part of society, performing a vital role but we are not paid for overtime or leave, and we have no medical check-ups or testing, with or without the pandemic.”

Many sanitation workers told WaterAid they felt forced to go to work during lockdowns even if they felt ill for fear of losing their jobs. Even without the threat of the virus, sanitation work was hazardous. The workforce risk being exposed to a wide variety of health hazards and diseases and could often come in direct contact with human waste. Sharp objects in latrines and poor construction could cause injury and infection while toxic gases made workers lose consciousness and/or even their lives, the study found.

According to media reports, on October 3-4, two sanitation workers - Nadeem Masih, 38, and Faisal Masih, 28, - died due to toxic gases while performing their duties in manholes of Sargodha without safety gear. Similar cases were reported frequently from different parts of Pakistan.

“However, these incidents neither result in better working conditions for sanitation workers nor do their families get any compensation.”

Arif Jabbar Khan, WaterAid Pakistan Country Director, said: “Sanitation workers play vital role in keeping our neighbourhoods clean but they face social and economic exclusion and discrimination based on their profession. Many sanitation workers lose their lives while performing duties under unsafe health and safety conditions.”

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2021

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