‘JUSTICE and accountability’. These were, among others, the demands of the 150 or so demonstrators who gathered near the seaside in Karachi last Sunday. There is a paucity of both these principles in Pakistan but the worst hit are the poorest of the poor — the janitors. There are hundreds and thousands of them who live below the poverty line all over the country and do not even earn the remunerations fixed by law as the minimum wage. But what good wages alone cannot ensure is respect and dignity which only a culture of civility can bring.
Hence the walk-a-cause last Sunday organised by the citizens’ group calling itself Justice for Janitors must be commended. The fact is that sanitary workers have been thrown at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder in Pakistan by society and the state. Not only are their wages low, their working conditions are also appalling. It seems that even their lives are not worth protecting from the hazards they are exposed to. They are treated as cheap commodities that are easily replaceable. But are they? Didn’t Vijjay who died of gas poisoning while cleaning the sewer in Shahdadkot recently have a family with whom he had human bonds?
Only a callous and exploitative approach on the part of the employers (all of whom are various government agencies) can explain, but not justify, the horrendous working conditions of the janitors. Hence the demands of the group that demonstrated earlier this week for the immediate attention of the officials concerned.
In a nutshell, the government is being asked to regularise the sanitary workers’ jobs and pay them the minimum wages announced by their province. They should also be provided social security and the EOBI pension as laid down by the law.
It seems that the lives of sanitary workers are not worth protecting.
There is another demand, namely that of making working conditions safe for sanitary workers. This means providing janitors who are required to enter the gutters to clean the clogged ones safety kits (full body suits), safety harness, rescue ropes and breathing devices. As much of the work as possible should be mechanised.
It may not be easy to change public attitudes, especially of those who believe that by virtue of their birth and faith they are the ‘chosen ones’. At least the government can help by encouraging inclusivity. Instead, it is instrumental in inculcating a derogatory and discriminatory mindset vis-à-vis non-Muslims. If this were not so why would official advertisements inviting applications for janitorial posts carry the phrase ‘non-Muslims only’ as a condition for qualification for the candidate?
The driving force behind this and similar groups advocating justice for the downtrodden is Naeem Sadiq who does not fear taking up such causes that many others shun. His strategy is unique and since the group supporting him comprises like-minded members who are conscientious and hard-working, they often succeed.
Having first tried their hand at the right to information, the group learnt that knowledge and information are the strongest weapons to fight the government’s wrongdoings. The group which has gathered round Sadiq gives him strength. Before espousing a cause, the group does a lot of thinking, brainstorming and research to determine the causes of past failures and gather information on the processes and departments involved. Then comes the decision on the demands to be raised and the strategy it would adopt to act as an effective pressure group. Advocacy is multilayered, and Sunday’s protest was designed to enhance the visibility of the issue.
On account of its strategy, Justice for Janitors has made an impact in some ways. The Civil Aviation Authority has already raised its janitors’ wages to Rs25,000 per month. The 40 cantonments in Pakistan have made a promise to increase the wages of their sanitary workers. Last month, Islamabad’s CDA also enhanced its janitors’ wages to Rs20,000. But the various municipalities and solid waste management companies with whom the government has entered into agreements and their third-party contractors have remained where they are. The Sindh chief minister, however, keeps reiterating that the janitors’ wages will be raised. But action is still awaited.
There are other issues where the citizens’ group has met with failure. The group could not get the government to regulate the licensing of arms and completely ban the public display of weapons. It could not have a ban imposed on the hunting of houbara bustards by Arab sheikhs. It could not get the government to take action against thousands of illegal and fake official number plates in use in Karachi.
But the group has not given up and seeks to keep these issues alive. One never knows how the dynamics of power work. These committed citizens are hopeful that sooner or later there will be a breakthrough on each of these issues, opening new doors for change and progress in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2021