Sanitation workers are forced to risk life and limb and are discriminated against
he dingy, dark room in a small house in the Khan Garh suburb of Muzaffargarh was quiet. Everyone was waiting for Sumaira, a mother of six, to describe the fateful day when the news of her 40-year-old husband Riaz Hussain’s death arrived.
She failed to muster strength and her voice choked with grief. All she could say was that “her life had ended that day with her husband’s“. Niaz Hussain, the elder brother of Riaz, then volunteered to describe the incident.
It was the third day of Eid ul Azha sacrifice. Riaz received a call from his office asking him to reach a clogged sewer line. His duty time had ended and the place was not in his area but the complainant was an influential person. Riaz had no choice but to obey the orders of his chief officer.
Riaz picked up Rab Nawaz, a sewer man close to retirement and the two headed for the clogged line with their minimal equipment. Nawaz went into the 25 feet deep sewer line. He was not aware of the concentration level of toxic gases in the sewer.
Sensing that it was quiet inside the sewer hole, Riaz called Nawaz. There was no answer. He guessed correctly that this was an emergency and started shouting for help, but no one came to the rescue. He then called 1122. Determining that he couldn’t wait for professional help to arrive, he tied the available rope to the vehicle and lowered himself into the manhole. He saw Nawaz lying unconscious on the sewer floor. The carbon monoxide concentration had slightly declined by that time. He picked Nawaz up and asked the people who gathered around to pull them out. However, no one came forward.
Riaz was losing strength by the time and getting dizzy but he kept trying to pull Nawaz up. Just as he reached the manhole opening, the rope broke and they both fell back into the sewer. Both workers died on the spot from inhaling the CO and their injuries. The bodies remained in the sewer for two hours as no one was ready to risk their life by getting into the sewer.
“I reached the place at 8:30. The police scolded and baton charged the family members to stop them from going near the scene. We had to fight them. When we finally reached the manhole, I could see that my brother was dead. His face was swollen and covered with blood. I couldn’t bear to see it. I fainted,” said Niaz.
Instead of filing an FIR, the police advised the family to say that Riaz had gone there for some personal work. Niaz alleged that they were offered Rs 3 million if they remained quiet. “My brother was not for sale. He was the father of four boys and a girl. The youngest is only five years old. We wanted justice for him. We wanted the matter to be investigated and the culprit punished.”
He went on to say that instead of following the SHO’s advice, the two families decided to block the main road and stayed there with the bodies till noon the following day when the FIR was finally registered.
98 percent of non-regular employees fear that they can lose their jobs any time. Their services are not regularised and they are not considered government employees despite working for the government, the report says. When they are assigned hazardous work, fearing for their jobs, they cannot afford to say ‘no’.
Riaz’s was not the first such case. According to a fact-finding report, Unequal Citizens, by the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), the death of sanitary workers while cleaning sewers is routine. Many workers have lost their lives descending into the toxic gutters of various municipalities without proper protective gear. They also face severe discrimination.
The report says that rescue workers often refuse to save them when they fall unconscious while trying to keep sewage from overrunning. Sometimes even the doctors refuse to treat them. They often refuse to interact with them on account of their work. The commission has recommended ensuring the protection of sanitary workers through measures ranging from replacing manual unclogging of gutters with robotic unclogging and ensuring fair wages, social security and healthcare for workers. The commission says that federal and provincial governments must make new laws, making it illegal for supervisors to send sewage workers into gutters without adequate safety gear.
A research report published by End Water Poverty mentions that according to Lahore Waste Management Company, 70 sanitation workers died during work in 2019 alone. The deaths were mostly caused by exposure to poisonous gases while unclogging sewer lines. There is no data on diseases developed by sanitary workers due to their exposure to such gasses. 83 percent of WASA’s 2,240 sanitation workers claim that they have been provided outdated tools for unclogging sewer lines, the report says.
According to the survey, 98 percent of non-regular employees fear that they can lose their jobs any time. Their services are not regularised and they are not considered government employees despite working for the government, the report says. When they are assigned hazardous work, fearing for their jobs, they cannot afford to say ‘no.’ A majority of the workers belong to minority communities.
An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study has revealed that sanitation workers face a fatality risk ten times higher than workers in other occupations. Another report, jointly authored by the ILO, Water Aid, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation, confirms that millions of sanitation workers in the developing world are forced to work in conditions that endanger their health and lives and violate their dignity and human rights.
Talking to The News on Sunday, Rab Nawaz’s wife, Jandudn Mai, said they did not want more people to lose their loved ones this way. “Many promises were made the day we were protesting. Influential people announced financial support and pledged millions of rupees, but the promises were not honoured. The government promised two jobs for each affected family. We did get one job but are still waiting for the second one,” she said. “The protesting can’t bring back my husband. The only way to stop this injustice is to provide safety kits and proper training to workers so that such incidents never happen again.”
The writer is a reporter for The News International