POST TIME: 19 November, 2019 00:00 00 AM
Sanitation workers exposed to grim conditions: Report
World Toilet Day today

Sanitation workers exposed to grim conditions: Report

The last few decades have seen a massive push for improved sanitation in urban and rural Bangladesh. The progress has been substantial, with several hundred thousand Bangladeshis now having access to toilets with sanitation facilities. Sanitation systems in Bangladesh were previously designed with one unfortunate assumption: human labour would always be available to service them. This fundamental issue brings up challenges on many fronts.

At various steps throughout the sanitation value chain—from toilets to treatment plants—workers have to interact with the faecal matter in extremely unsafe ways. They frequently have inadequate safety equipment and training. They are also socially and culturally ostracised. Usually engaged through informal contracts, these workers work for local governments and private operators or are contacted by households directly. As a result, most have poor financial and health outcomes.

While the issues faced by sanitation workers have drawn some attention, they have largely been treated as matters for civil society organisations to tackle. There has been very little strategic focus on the full range of issues that arise from unsafe sanitation work in urban areas. Motivated to fill this gap, International Labour Organisation (ILO), WaterAid, World Bank, and World Health Organisation have jointly conducted a study in which they highlight the perils faced by these sanitation workers.

The study, titled “Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers”, reveals that an estimated five million to six million sweepers operate in Bangladesh. And despite providing an essential public service, they are often marginalised, poor, and discriminated against.

“Workers often come into direct contact with human waste, working with no equipment or protection, which exposes them to a wide variety of health hazards and disease,”

said the report, which was conducted on the conditions faced by sanitation workers across nine countries. The report said that toxic gases, such as ammonia, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide, in septic tanks and sewers can cause workers to lose consciousness or die.

“There are no global statistics available. But in India alone, it is estimated that three sanitation workers die every five days. Countless others suffer repeated infections and injury, and have their lives cut short by the everyday risks of the job,” said the study.

The report highlighted that the work is often informal, with workers subject to no rights or social protections. Pay can be inconsistent or non-existent, while some workers report being paid in food rather than money.

In some countries, sanitation work comes with social stigma. Workers often work at night to hide their job from their communities, the report said. Tim Wainwright, CEO of WaterAid, said: “Everyone goes to the toilet. So, everyone is put at risk of deadly waterborne disease if the waste is not properly dealt with. Sanitation workers, therefore, carry out some of the most important roles in any society.”

“It is shocking that sanitation workers are forced to work in conditions that endanger their health and lives. It’s unfortunate that they cope with stigma and marginalisation rather than being provided with adequate equipment, recognition, and celebration of the life-saving work they carry out. People are dying every day from both poor sanitation and dangerous working conditions. We cannot allow this to continue,” he added.

Maria Neira, director of public health and environment at WHO, said: “A fundamental principle of health is ‘first do no harm’. Sanitation workers make a key contribution to public health around the world—but in so doing, put their own health at risk.”

“This is quite unacceptable. We must improve working conditions for these people and strengthen the sanitation workforce to meet global water and sanitation targets,” she added. Alette Van Leur, director of the sectoral policies department at ILO, said: “There is a lack of policies, laws, and regulations surrounding sanitation workers, and where they exist, they tend to be weak, covering only certain types of sanitation workers, or lack the required financing or enforcement mechanism.”

Jennifer Sara, global director at the World Bank Water Global Practice, said: “The time is now. We need more concerted efforts by all sector actors to come together and improve the quality of the lives of sanitation workers.”

“This report represents a first step to better understand the various problems facing sanitation workers and identifies actions that can be taken to reverse the current situation in a more consistent fashion,” she added.