Speakers at a moot on Monday agreed on the need for concerted multi-pronged efforts to ensure dignity, workplace rights and equality for sanitary workers.
The Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) and the Sindh Human Rights Commission (SHRC) jointly organised a provincial conference, titled ‘Shaping a Safe and Dignified Future for the Sanitary Workers in Sindh’, at a local hotel.
The moot was attended by parliamentarians from all major political parties of Sindh, officials from the Sindh Human Rights Commission, government officials, trade unions and human rights activists.
Boota Imtiaz, an activist representing sanitary workers, said that the sanitary workers had been facing a number of issues that were discussed through a series of consultative meetings held in the past four months with sanitary workers.
The issues that needed to be resolved included confirming all workers with a complete job package, as offered to other government servants, providing health and safety training to sanitary workers, ensuring the provision of safety kits among sanitation workers, and devising mechanical means to address blocked sewage lines to minimise sanitary workers’ exposure to toxic wastes.
Imtiaz also demanded issuing health insurance for the sanitary workers and thus bringing them under a strong social security mechanism, paying compensation for workplace accidents, work-related diseases, pensions and housing allowance, and ending recruitment through contractors, who took no responsibility for the wellbeing of the workers and employed exploitative practices.
He also demanded of the government to take affirmative actions through legislation to address religious discrimination against non-Muslim sanitary workers, policies, workplace code of conduct, grievance mechanism and dialogue and punitive action against those exercising discriminatory attitudes.
SHRC chairperson Justice (retd) Majida Razvi said that the commission had received a number of complaints from sanitary workers pertaining to discrimination at employment and occupational health and safety risks.
Razvi, who has recently constituted a subcommittee on sanitary workers seeking to address their issues using the suo moto powers as well as the mandate to review laws and policies, said: “The SHRC was able to resolve these complaints by persistently engaging the concerned departments.”
She stressed the need for a dedicated set of efforts covering complaint redressal, review of legislation and policy, capacity building of workers for greater understanding of their rights and involvement of related departments to move forward on the wellbeing of the sanitary workers.
Syed Nasir Hussain Shah, provincial minister for local government, said that the government had already been working on issues related to sanitary workers at provincial level, including focusing on promoting their grades and increasing their salaries.
“Sanitary workers are not only deputed in the major urban centres, such as Karachi and Hyderabad, but also working in all towns, smaller cities and even in larger villages,” he said. He also suggested the term sanitary workers should be replaced with health workers to respect their dignity.
Javed Jabbar, chairman of the SPO Board of Governors, said that sanitary workers faced derogatory and discriminatory attitudes not only because of their profession but also because of their non-Muslim status.
“We do not have any threat from the religious minority that is very small in number in the country,” said Jabbar, who is also former senator.”The clause in the 18th Amendment barring non-Muslims from becoming the country’s prime minister needs to be revisited.”
Zulfiqar Shah, the lead researcher who had conducted a study on sanitary workers, said that the major reason behind the community’s marginalisation was informal employment. He said Pakistan had a labour force of 65 million. Of this, an overwhelming majority of 73 per cent is in the informal sector, which means they have no rights or fewer rights as informal work is not covered by labour laws.
Shafiq Ghouri, president of the Sindh Labour Federation, said that the contract employment was a dominant mode of employment of workers in this sector, even in the public sector. “Contract employment represents the worst form of workplace rights violations, as sanitary workers, employed by human resource contractors supplying labour to government as well as the private sector, remain deprived of their rights to job safety, protection against occupational health and safety risks, minimum wages and access to social protection.”
Karamat Ali, director of the Pakistan Institue of Labour Education and Research, said that the absence of unionisation or poor representative organisations had harmed sanitary workers immeasurably. “The ILO and all international institutions working on labour have recommended eight hours a day. However, sanitary workers work for far longer hours. Earlier, there were unions of all government servants, including the police. But now these unions are banned,” he said.
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