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Death of a sanitary worker


June 22, 2017

“I am a man” were the chants that rang in the air as hundreds of charged sanitation workers  marched through the streets of city of Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1968 and the month was February. The working conditions for the black sanitation workers had always remained inhumane while the pay structure was abysmal. But it was the accidental death of two of their co-workers that had impelled the sanitation workers to take to the streets.

Though the struggle turned out to be long and arduous one, the sanitation workers were eventually successful in convincing others that they too were human beings and, therefore, entitled to a minimum level of protection and benefits. What sanitation workers of Memphis had achieved then, their counterparts in Pakistan still don’t have even half a century later. They still have to prove to their countrymen that they too are “men” and are entitled to certain rights.

The death of Irfan Masih, a sanitation worker, at a government-run hospital in Umerkot on June 1 – after the doctor on duty refused to treat him for inhaling poisonous gases that he was exposed to while cleaning a clogged sewer – provides a window into the actual state of affairs. Such jobs are solely performed by the least privileged segment of society: the Christians. The workers are not provided any safety gear, equipment or formal training in what they do. They have to work under extremely hazardous and life-threatening conditions. Serious accidents are not uncommon in this trade. People treat these workers with extreme contempt and refuse to interact with them, even under the most serious of the circumstances. There are no insurance covers or post-accident benefits within the system for such workers.

However, the biggest dilemma is that we have never considered who is doing this extremely unpleasant – and rather nauseating – job for us and, most importantly, how. It is, in fact, taken for granted that tonnes of sewage water and human refuse keep flowing through whatever kind of sewer lines we have. No one stop to think that if and when these lines gets clogged, who goes and unclogs them for us.

This is not happening in one or two towns, or in one province or another. It is happening in each and every town of our beloved motherland. And yet, such a large body of sanitation workers does not have a voice or even collective bargaining power. No one bothers about their existence or plight. They are voiceless, faceless and invisible. By virtue of the very nature of their work, they are exposed to all form of hazards that are mostly of a biological, chemical, physical or psychological nature. These are immediate concerns as well as those that can have slow-onset impacts.

Many accidents happen in sewer lines on a regular basis. Some are reported and others mostly go unreported. But does that move any leaf anywhere? Is anyone bothered about these incidents? Two workers lost their lives a couple of years ago in the same sewer lines in Umerkot under same circumstances. But did that change anything for the sanitation workers? Will Irfan Masih’s tragic death wake us from our deep slumber and remind us of their human status? Unfortunately, nothing will happen until we make a conscious attempt to understand the issue.

To begin with, any civil society organisation must come forth and take upon itself the task of organising the sanitation workers. It can create awareness among the people about the issue. Detailed research needs to be conducted into the plight of sanitation workers and efforts should be made to find possible solutions to the problems they face. The concerned agencies at all levels should be urged to provide all possible safety gears and equipment to the sanitation workers. They should provide training along modern lines to sanitation workers. Workers should be provided comprehensive medical cover and medical and life insurances. And above all, their salaries should correspond– at least to some degree – with the difficult nature of the work they perform.

Those at the helms of affairs at the federal, provincial and local tiers should bring in as much mechanisation as possible. Given the nature of work, the world is already moving away from manual interventions in sanitation matters and embracing mechanical options. We should try to adopt these techniques. Not a penny invested into the sanitation sector should be wasted. The more we invest, the healthier the nation will be. 

There is, however, a much larger issue to address too. Several decades have passed since Pakistan came into being. But why is it that the situation of minorities – especially the Christians – is not improving, if not getting worse? Overwhelmingly illiterate and extremely poor, they do not have any other option but to take up menial jobs. They mostly live in shanty towns and eat and wear in an inexpensive way. What went wrong and where? The government as well as society as a whole should realise their responsibility and failure in this regard.

A comprehensive plan should be devised to improve the conditions of the minorities. It must be implemented sooner rather than later. Their skills and literacy level needs to be enhanced on an emergency basis to increase their employability. More job opportunities should be created for them. Small and medium-sized loans should be liberally extended to them so they can set up their own businesses. In doing all this, resources should not be a constraint. Since they involve Christians and other minorities, many developed countries and international agencies would be prepared to fund such initiatives. All that is needed on our part is commitment.

As for the doctor who allegedly refused to touch Irfan Masih in the emergency, there is a simple question to consider: what has he learnt from fasting – which supposedly teaches us to empathise with the poor and inculcate a spirit of sacrifice – if he refused to save a life? The doctor could have saved the worker instead of using his fast as a pretext to not touch his filth-covered body. This reminds one of the sayings of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) that many people get nothing out of fasting but hunger and thirst.


The writer is a barrister and a rights

Email: [email protected]


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