Sanitary workers’ rights

Published January 27, 2022

RELIGIOUS discrimination in Pakistan has many faces and one of its most troubling manifestations is the virtual institutionalisation of bigotry that looks upon non-Muslims as lesser beings. This is most evident in jobs related to garbage disposal, sanitation and sewerage management that many Muslim citizens consider to be beneath their dignity and that are left for minority communities to take up. At least 80pc of the country’s sanitation workforce comprises non-Muslims, mainly members of the Christian community. In this context, the decision taken by the National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to raise awareness about the issue is a step in the right direction. That the commission also intends to file a suit against the government for the use of discriminatory language in advertising jobs in the sanitation sector is also a sign that the NCHR is serious about tackling this issue.

Job advertisements by the government in this sector often ask non-Muslims to apply, although it goes against the spirit of the Constitution and international human rights conventions. Non-Muslim sanitary workers are already subjected to the ugliest forms of social and religious discrimination; they are further exploited financially. Most remain underpaid and overworked, and perform their jobs without being given proper equipment or attire; they often have to climb inside large sewerage pipes to clean faecal sludge with their bare hands at considerable risk to their lives. Only in October last year, two young sanitary workers died in Karachi while two others perished in Sargodha when they inhaled toxic fumes as they worked to unclog the underground sewerage lines. According to the NCHR, between 2011 and 2021, more than 65pc of sanitary workers who died while unclogging gutters belonged to minority communities. The services and plight of the country’s largely non-Muslim sanitary workers have remained unseen and unheard for far too long. One hopes that the initiative taken by the NCHR is able to bring about a positive change in the lives of those who toil hard to keep this country clean.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2022

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