Sanitation workers provide an invaluable public service, vital to our daily lives and the environment. Yet they often work in conditions that expose them to the worst consequences of poor sanitation – debilitating infections, injuries, social stigma and even death – every day.
We have joined forces with the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization to shed light on this neglected issue. Our report is the most extensive global exploration of the topic to date.
In it we analyse the problems sanitation workers face – focusing on those emptying pits and tanks and maintaining sewers – and explore good practices around the world. We suggest areas of action to ensure sanitation workers: have their rights recognized; are supported to organize as a labour force; and have their working conditions improved and progressively formalized.
Despite increasing focus by the government and programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, unsafe sanitation work, loosely captured under the catch-all phrase manual scavenging, still exists in India. There are five million people employed in sanitation work of some sort in India with about two million of them working in ‘high risk’ conditions.
Here is the first article in a series which introduces the situation of sanitation workers in the country, their different personas, the challenges they face, and the solutions that are essential to improving this situation.
Credit: Dalberg Advisors
The last few years have been the golden age for sanitation in India. What started out as the Total Sanitation Campaign in the 1990s morphed into the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan under the UPA Government and then transformed into the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with full gusto driven by the prime minister’s special attention.
This translated directly into increased budgets, a mission-mode implementation across the country and by official estimates, 80 million additional toilets getting constructed. Now, over 89% of the country’s population has access to a household toilet, compared to 40% in 2014.
There are two contrasting stories this week on the treatment of sanitation workers: in China a local restaurant treats 180 of them to a free lunch, while in Gaza they go on strike after having received no pay for over six months.
More than 180 sanitation workers in Chengdu, Sichuan province enjoyed a free lunch courtesy of a local hotpot restaurant. Photo: weibo.com
Sanitation workers in China get low pay, have poor working conditions and work long hours. Mr. Li, a restaurant owner in Chengdu, decided it was time to show some appreciation for their hard work, especially now as temperatures were dropping. He offered over 180 local sanitation workers a free lunch; they were “encouraged to order whatever they wanted, including alcohol”, writes Dina Li in the Shanghaiist.
The free lunch was also a compensation for the mess created when Mr Li opened his new restaurant and employees distributed more than 100,000 leaflets, most of which ended up on the streets for sanitation workers to clean up.
Waste piles up in Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza Strip, as a result of strike by sanitation workers. Photo: Mohammad Asad, MEMO
How differently sanitation workers are treated in the Gaza Strip. Since the formation of the Palestinian unity government in June 2014, they have not received any pay. This has spurred a strike with severe consequences for the health care system. The accumulation of large piles of waste and garbage has forced the Al-Shifa Hospital to stop all work in their operation and emergency rooms.
Deputy Minister of Health, Yusuf Abu Al-Reesh warned of dangerous health conditions inside the hospitals and medical centres in Gaza since staff from the private sanitation companies went on strike.
Dina Li, Chengdu hotpot restaurant treats over 180 sanitation workers to free lunch, Shanghaiist, 5 Dec 2014
“We’re kind of like the invisible people. He doesn’t realize, you know, the service we provide,” says sanitation worker Richard Hayes, who has picked up the trash at Mitt Romney’s Californian house.
Hayes and fellow sanitation worker Joan Raymond appear in an online ad campaign by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The campaign suggests that Republican presidential candidate Romney is benefiting from government services while threatening to cut them back. Representing 1.6 million public service workers, AFSCME is supporting President Barack Obama in the 2012 US election.