Millions of sanitation workers in the developing world are forced to work in conditions that endanger their health and lives, according to the most extensive global study to date on the issue released earlier this month.
Despite providing an essential public service, these workers are often the most marginalised, poor and discriminated against members of society who carry out their jobs with no equipment, protection or legal rights, often violating their dignity and human rights.
The report is the most extensive exploration to date on the plight of sanitation workers in the developing world. It is jointly authored by the International Labour Organisation, WaterAid, World Bank and World Health Organization to raise awareness of the de-humanising working conditions and to push for change.
Sanitation workers are the men and women who work at any part of the long sanitation chain that begins when we go to the toilet and ends when waste is disposed of or reused. Their jobs can include cleaning toilets, emptying pits and septic tanks, cleaning sewers and manholes and operating pumping stations and treatment plants.
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. 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 more suffer repeated infections and injury, and have their lives cut short by the everyday risks of the job.
Wendgoundi Sawadogo has worked as a manual emptier in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city for 15 years. “You have no paper to show that this is your profession. When you die, you die. You go with your bucket and your hoe without recognition, without leaving a trace anywhere or a document that shows your offspring that you have practiced such a job. When I think of that, I’m sad. I do not wish any of my children to do the work I do.”
The work is often informal with workers subject to no rights or social protections. Pay can be inconsistent or non-existent – some workers report being paid in food rather than money. In some countries, sanitation work is a socially stigmatising issue, so workers often work at night to hide their job from their communities.
CS Sharada Prasad, Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti / WaterAid
Basile Ouedgraogo / WaterAid