They come, clean, and leave – near-invisible to the multitudes that see them perform one of the most important tasks in a society: literally cleaning it up. And when they are seen, they mainly...
They come, clean, and leave – near-invisible to the multitudes that see them perform one of the most important tasks in a society: literally cleaning it up. And when they are seen, they mainly only face discrimination and bigotry. Garbage disposal is one of the most important indicators of civilisational level of advancement; and the way a society treats its sanitary workers is even more so. In South Asia generally – and in Pakistan particularly – sewage management is consigned to people who are somehow not considered full and respectable citizens. Coupled with cultural bigotry we have religious discrimination too that leaves sanitary workers at the mercy of those who consider themselves superior. This prejudice is not only on an individual basis; rather it has deep roots in history and collective memory of discriminatory attitudes towards those who soil themselves so that society remains clean. Since cleanliness that comes with garbage collection and disposal is an integral part of any society worth its name, it should have nothing to do with one’s culture or religion. And, since all cultures and religions stress upon hygiene and cleanliness, sanitary workers deserve adequate compensation and the utmost respect – regardless of which community, religion, sect, creed they belong to.
More than three-fourths of all sanitary workers in Pakistan come from non-Muslim communities, mostly from Christian and Hindu families. Ideally, this issue should have become a cause of concern much earlier, but as the cliche ‘better late than never’ suggests, finally the National Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (NHRC) has taken up the task to raise awareness about this matter. It is not only the derogatory language or poor compensation that Pakistani sanitary workers receive from society but also discriminatory behaviour that even government departments display towards them. Just one example would be any advertisement for sanitary workers which would show how the choice of words is highly condescending and hints at a serious marginalisation of sanitary workers. The constitution of Pakistan accords equal rights to all citizens of the country without any prejudice based on profession or religion. Then why should an advertisement clearly specify non-Muslims as applicants for janitorial and sanitation jobs?
This practice also violates international conventions on human rights that guarantee equal treatment to all, irrespective of their creed, ethnicity, or profession. Given our history when it comes to religious minorities, it becomes even more significant for governmental authorities to actively pursue any cases of discrimination against sanitary workers based on their profession or religion. Their financial condition is mostly unspeakable, with bare minimum payments – and that too on a contractual basis. They do not enjoy job security and protective gears are not in sight anywhere in Pakistan. They plunge into drain holes with bare bodies and many have lost their lives to toxic gases in manholes. This exploitation becomes even more pronounced when their families don’t get any compensation. The NCHR deserves some appreciation for taking up this issue. Perhaps we may see a day that these silent, neglected workers who are almost invisible to most in Pakistan finally get the respect they deserve.