Saturday December 09, 2023

Sanitation workers stay invisible on priority list of policymakers

December 07, 2019

HYDERABAD: Anwer Waryam Masih, a sanitary worker residing in a locality on the embankment of the Indus, near Latiafabad No-5, recalling the past blissful days, said when he joined Hyderabad Development Authority (HDA) in 1984 there were 480 sanitary workers to keep the city clean.

Now, he said the city has expanded to almost double its past size, and new towns like Qasimabad and Latifabad have been developed, but the strength of the workforce has plummeted to only 80 people. “The work burden has increased unimaginably and it seems each worker performs the duty of five persons,” Anwer Masih shared. “Earlier, the situation was better in terms of medical facility and extra packages on auspicious occasions like Eids, Christmas and Diwalis.”

Presently, only a few workers being seniors are regularised. “Their salary is up to Rs22,000 or a little more as per their experience with less significant facilities. Otherwise, the authorities hire workforce for this specific job on contractual basis through third party, who pay only Rs14,000/month, less than the minimum wages of Rs17,500, set by the government.”

Every morning these workers, both men and women, leave their homes in scattered groups to reach their workplaces. Many workers have to travel long distance and bear the transport fare.

They work for 8—12 hours daily, sometimes the time exceeds to 14—16 hours depending on the situation, as in some cases mainly during rains and drain blockages, they continue work till the problem, is resolved.

Another worker Akram Masih, employee of Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA) Hyderabad, said, “Sanitary workers stay on balti (bucket) inside manholes for hours, depending on the status of blockages. The bucket is considered an easy tool to move in and come out. Their colleagues standing outside pull the bucket and they come out.”

It was unfortunate that in over a century, the working conditions of sanitary workers has remained virtually unchanged.

Women sweepers said they have to clean wide areas daily without a break. They face dust, pollution and ill-treatment by the in-charges and supervisors as well as the common public, who abuse them due to the dust. “It is as if we create hurdles for them deliberately.”

These workers demand for confirmation letters, increase in salary and other benefits, including safety equipments and health cars, so they could get proper treatment at hospitals in case of an emergency. Earlier, they used to get soap, towel and water thermos, but now they are deprived of these facilities as well. Due to this, workers are exposed to many diseases mainly dehydration, asthma, skin problems, allergy and injuries.

Talking about discrimination they said it depends on an area, some people deal with them politely and don’t show hostility while others behave roughly. The workers are not allowed to use a glass of water. Some people offer contaminated food to consume, which sometimes creates health problems for them and their family members.

Some of the workers are skilled, but since they do not have certificates they cannot get jobs. Thus, they being from poor families, and associated with this specific job, are treated impolitely and people do not have respect for their skills.

A majority of the children of sanitary workers are out of school, as the parents are unable to afford school fee. So, they take their children with them to work to teach them their professional skills.

Data suggests that there are 1 to 1.5 sanitary workers per 1,000 population in major towns of Sindh. Only Karachi, with a population of 20 million, has close to 11,000 sanitary workers. Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (HMC) has around 1,700 workers with hardly a small number of regularised workers.

These workers face a fatality risk that is 10 times higher than workers in all other industries. This misery is compounded by outdated civic infrastructure and poor attention to workplace safety, discrimination and negative social attitudes against this particular profession.

In fact, there is an understanding for the need to address the issues of the sanitary workers, but there has not been much progress in developing a comprehensive plan to steer efforts in this direction.

Zulfiqar Shah, joint director, Pakistan Institute f Labour Education and Research (PILER) said almost all labour have the same issues in terms of provision of health and safety in the country. He quoted the Baldia factory incident in Karachi in which 250 persons were burnt to death.

The fire incident exposed worst working conditions in factories. The country has 150 million people working as labourers. Among them the sanitary workers were declared untouchable in our society. “The irony is that the national sanitation policy 2016 and Sindh sanitation policy 2017 do not mention anything about sanitation workers, despite the fact that they are the stakeholders.” Not only municipal institutions, private housing societies and companies also hire sanitation workers, including men, women and children. They work in pathetic conditions on low wages and face hazardous impact on their health.

“If we talk about waste and direct exposure of sanitary workers, we can see that they work in a hazardous atmosphere, and even work on public holidays. There is no consideration of leaves for them either,” he said.

Pirbhu Satyani of Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) working for promotion socio-economic well being of sanitary workers in Sindh claims to have got safety kits for around 250 workers to help them avoid horrible incidents. He quoted some incidents in which workers died due to unavailability of safety kits.

He said they were working with HMC and WASA to help these workers and avoid such fatal incidents.

“When we approached institutions that hire this workforce, they did not have any safety plan or measures for their workers.”

Gas masks and other required safety items were not available even in Karachi, but SPO has now acquired these items and was going to distribute the necessary equipment among workers within a few days, he said.