Work above all else

August 13, 2023

Shahbaz Masih, a typical sanitation worker, does not wear a cape and does not have a regular job

Work above all else


he system is rigged against the likes of me,” he says in Punjabi.

Shahbaz Masih, aged 51, is no ordinary man; he is an unsung hero. But accepting the hand he has been dealt, is not easy either. It would make the bravest of people crumble.

The distress caused by his job, its demands and its precarious nature are just some of the things Masih grapples with as he works. He is a self-employed sanitary worker in the sleepy Bani Gala suburb of the capital.

For 26 consecutive years of his life, Masih has been working. Out of those, the last 13 have been spent sweeping the walkways outside a string of shops in Jinnah Market - the main shopping centre of the neighbourhood which was, in the early days renowned for being the abode of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, otherwise known as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb.

These days, the area’s claim to fame is Imran Khan. Yes, he once had a cleaning gig at Qadeer Khan’s house and, no, he has neither met nor worked at Imran Khan’s. “How would he even know about the likes of us?” he asks, drawing out his words, the cadences in his speech divulging that he comes from someplace near the heart of the Punjab if one were to guess.

How is the system rigged against him? He is ageing and does not have the safety net, however scant, that a government job offers. Despite working hard for decades and devoting half of his life to this work, he feels that he and others like him are stuck in a rut.

“To be employed by the government requires some form of schooling, preferably matriculation. I never could go to school,” explains Masih. “I never stood a chance at securing a job with the Capital Development Authority (CDA),” he sighs, with the weariness of someone adept at dealing with a fait accompli.

“Even those with primary education tend to look down upon us once they discover that we can’t read or write,” Masih tells. Deep crow’s feet line the sides of his dark brown eyes with their pale yellowed pupils. He carries a near-permanent squint. His expression is imperceptible; one cannot tell whether he is smiling or scowling; his countenance is sombre.

While Masih’s eyesight has been troubling him ‘more than usual’ over the past few months, he does not wear spectacles. He sports a short salt-and-pepper beard that makes him look at least ten years older than he is.

“How is formal education linked to cleaning work?” asks a puzzled Masih. Looked at through his lens, it is a question worth asking. In his situation, it makes raw sense to inquire about that.

According to Masih, most ‘invisible’ citizens like himself pine for a government job in our rigidly hierarchical society because it promises some semblance of stability. He claims that even low-wage government jobs are bought for sums that may run into the equivalent of the first three years of their salary. For Masih, this is a battle he was never destined to win.

Then, how did he strike out independently in a field as socially indistinct as sanitation and carve out for himself an income worth the effort? He says his current occupation is a second professional avatar for him.

Masih switched from being a worker at a garment-stitching centre in Islamabad, where he worked for 13 years, before becoming self-employed in a vocation no one wants to pursue.

A takeaway that comes with a wince

Shahbaz hails from the Christian community in Sialkot. His father was a factory worker in Sialkot but did not earn enough to look after his large family. Only two of his brothers managed to finish early classes.

Three, including himself, did not go to school. “Leave it be [chaddo paray]” he says when asked what he did during his several would-be school and teen years before coming to Islamabad. Masih prefers not to be probed about this period of his life, although he references a stint as a tailor’s apprentice. That, eventually, was fortuitous.

A distant cousin in the city managed to get him a spot at a garment factory on the outskirts of the capital. He began stitching in a factory outlet, based right behind the Diplomatic Enclave.

“There were some good years. It was the first time I was making money, I had friends and there were 14 fellow Christians on the team I worked with. I felt safe and stable. I was focused and consistent at work,” he recounts.

Then, Masih married into the family in his hometown. After a few years, he managed to shift his wife and son to Islamabad to a neighbourhood in Bani Gala. He had two more sons. It started becoming difficult to afford being in “this expensive city.”

“My earnings as a stitcher were not enough to cover our costs. One of my colleagues, a fellow Christian, used to double up as a sanitation worker, plumber and electrician in his spare time. He got me to work with him. This unlocked a new revenue stream for me,” he says.

“No!” says Shahbaz, when asked if he had ever considered sanitation as a vocation: “Who wants to clean up after others?”

He says he initially did some plumbing but that was not enough. A household or business establishment deals with waste every day, while plumbing is not an everyday problem. The arithmetic alone decided for him.

Back then, Bani Gala was growing and new houses and markets were being built, in large part, without proper sewerage systems. At that time [and even now] the CDA did not deploy resources to the area as much as it did elsewhere in urban Islamabad.

The sanitation needs of the locality grew. Residents and businesses were in need of cleaners. There weren’t enough people available willing to clean.

Masih started taking on small assignments and part-time gigs. Weekends were best when he could sometimes pick up five or even six assignments. Sometimes, he made more money in a month through his secondary profession than his principal one. It certainly helped that he lived in Bani Gala and did not have to travel far for odd jobs, although, on occasions, he has done that too.

Over the years, he made friends and acquaintances in his neighbourhood and got familiar with the bazaars of the city. While cleaning up on special assignments, he would often get a secondary assignment on the spot from a neighbour seeing him work for someone else. “You don’t find the likes of us in a shop. Where would you find us if you don’t run into us?” he quips, almost chuckling.

Eventually, he reached a point when he had to make a judgement call. Should he abandon his stitcher’s job and become a sanitation worker full-time?

“It was not easy. My wife was supportive. My mother, who did not like me cleaning gutters, was not. In the end, it was the money that decided—I needed it for my children,” says Masih “…and besides, the stitching job was giving me a back problem because I had to spend hours on end hunched over. My eyesight didn’t help either,” he reasons.

Shahbaz gave up the only steady job he had had in his life after a 13-year stint. The money from it was paltry, but it had ensured he was not swallowed up by life in the joyless slums of Sialkot.

“Yes, it was a bold decision to switch from whatever passes for a job to self-employment. I was afraid, but I had some small savings that gave me a cushion to help me face any potential setbacks in getting my regular cleaning assignments. It worked out. God was kind to me.”

While his resurrection as a self-employed sanitation worker has worked out, all things considered—it has been 13 years—it has not been without its lows, which still haunt Shahbaz Masih.

“There have been months I haven’t earned even Rs 5,000 and there have been months I have made over Rs 30,000,” he says. “I don’t want to be ungrateful to God because I have seen a couple of friends fall by the wayside as they mirrored my struggles while I have, overall, managed to keep it together,” he says “…but I did not choose this life, it chose me and that still disturbs me sometimes,” confesses Masih.

Masih says while tailors do not rank high in social status either, being a sanitation worker is not something one can proudly divulge around the company. “What I don’t get is this; both tailors and cleaners work equally hard but sanitation workers are rarely respected for their efforts,” he says wistfully. “How can cleaning up be dirty work?” he asks.

As he says this, there is a faraway look in his eyes. He’s trying to think back to the 26 years he split between the two vocations and comparing those.

The takeaway makes him wince.

“My children don’t have to be sweepers”

What good came from becoming a sanitation worker? He squints and takes about half a minute to answer. “At least my children don’t have to be sweepers. My wife and I had promised ourselves that we would do our best to not let that happen,” says Masih, his voice betraying a hint of emotion.

“What I don’t get is this; both tailors and cleaners work equally hard but sanitation workers are rarely respected for their efforts,” he says wistfully. “How can cleaning up be ‘dirty work?” he asks.

“We wanted them to at least matriculate, but my eldest studied up to Class 8 and apprenticed as an electrician. It’s a good vocation. He is respected and brings home money.

“Our middle son could study only up to Class 6 and works as a sales assistant in a large store. His pay is not too much, but it covers all his costs. We don’t take his money. He is young but carries himself well. He has been at his job for almost two years now, which is a miracle since people have been losing jobs everywhere. Our youngest still goes to school and is in Class 4.

“We think our children will do well. Most of my siblings’ children haven’t fared that well. So, we are grateful ours are not like that. This would not have happened if I had not managed to continue undeterred [as a sanitation worker]. I don’t think I would have managed [this well] if I had remained a garment stitcher,” he notes.

And what about the downside to being a sanitation worker, considering that he did not want to be one if given a choice? He ponders, then retorts, “We deserve respect like everyone else does.”

His use of the first-person plural, ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ is difficult to ignore. Through this, Masih conveys that this is not just about him. He describes himself collectively instead of a standalone individual. When he uses the word ‘we’ he speaks of himself but also his community of sanitation workers and fellow Christians trapped in this line of work.

“Some pejoratively call us untouchables, some call us waste-makers even though we are cleaners, not litterers,” says Masih. He then fiddles with his old mobile phone absentmindedly before collecting himself and putting it in the pocket of his turquoise shirt.

“Please understand this: I clean every day, which is a good thing. But I’ve never really liked it. Usually, this does not bother me unless I get dirty looks or hear the careless words people use sometimes. I know that no one is probably wasting their time thinking of hurting us, but sometimes they do so inadvertently. Sometimes they do it deliberately… ‘What can one do?’ you ask. Well, nothing can be done about this. Work goes on,” he shrugs.

He hastens to add that there are good-hearted people everywhere and most of the people he works with regularly are good to him. “They wouldn’t keep me working for them otherwise, especially the four shopkeepers in the [Jinnah] market who, despite some people trying to poison their minds (including a certain CDA Muslim sweeper who doesn’t like me, although I’ve done nothing to him). They have kept me afloat for several years now.”

What about exploitation—does he get paid fairly and on time? “There are all types [of people]. What most want to pay today is the same as they did three to five years ago or even less, even though everything is so expensive now. Even for one-time assignments, people haggle over the price. I almost always agree because what can I do? I need the money. Apart from four people who pay me a monthly fee each—call it a salary—my various one-time assignment fees can vary from Rs 100 to Rs 1,000. Luckily, not many people clean gutters or animal waste and so, at least I can make some money doing this.”

There is cleaning and then there is cleaning. “Sweeping is easy, cleaning gutters is not,” he says. Clearing choked sewer lines in homes or overflowing sewage outside houses or shops is never pleasant, he says.

“People don’t want to sweep themselves but don’t want to pay much for sweeping either. At least with gutters, they understand that even we sanitation workers must get dirty to provide them with cleanliness,” says Masih, “But often, they don’t want to agree on a clean-up assignment fee upfront and say they will pay whatever is fair afterwards. But, of course, afterwards, they think Rs 300 or Rs 500 is too much and want to haggle down to Rs 200 or Rs 250. That is the worst part of my job,” he complains.

He says that low wages or fees are not something only he grapples with—so do those sanitation workers employed with the CDA. “They do not make lakhs of rupees either!” he says pointedly, adding that the wages of all sanitation workers are generally insufficient to support themselves and their families. “My [government-employed] colleagues say their overtime often goes unpaid, forcing them to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.”

Whether sanitation workers in the city are employed by the government – like his colleagues or self-employed like himself, they are often subject to exploitation by their employers, who may withhold wages or force them to perform tasks outside their job description. “I have been hired by government contractors for sanitation labour three times but all of them were bad experiences. Twice, my payments were held up for months and one time, I was not even paid.”

He scoffs when asked about negotiating hazardous working conditions with safety equipment or training. “I have never received any training,” says the worker. Who would want to train me? I work with my hands. I have a personal tool kit that I use to clear choked pipes, drains and gutters but there is no safety equipment. I’ve not seen any.”

He says he once took on an assignment to clear medical waste at a hospital in Islamabad. “Afterwards, I was vomiting. And my hands and face itched for days. I never accepted a hospital assignment again.”

“I don’t have a government job, so I must cover my medical bills myself and so I’m careful. Summer can also be difficult to work in due to extreme temperatures, which can lead to heat exhaustion and dehydration - but we don’t always have the luxury of working in the shade or the evening or inside comfortable offices and rooms as most people do,” says Masih.

The malaise

What have been the most difficult times of his life as a self-employed sanitation worker? For Shahbaz, that counts as a seven-week stretch that left him bedridden after he contracted typhoid. The local clinics—one in Bani Gala and one in nearby Bhara Kahu—bungled up his treatment and he nearly died.

Even after he recovered, he was not able to work for another three weeks. He ran up a huge debt that took him a year to clear. The only thing that kept the family afloat was his wife’s earnings; she works as domestic help in nearby homes. “I pray every day that my family or I don’t fall sick or become bedridden. It is too expensive to bear treatment costs; even basic medicines cost too much now,” says Masih.

Another time, the owner of his small rented home near a village on the outskirts of Bani Gala ordered him out with only two days’ notice. He couldn’t find an alternative and his family and household items were thrown out.

A family in his locality gave them a room for a few days until he was able to find another two-room first-floor home to rent, where he has been for over four years now. “The rents are too high now. If my sons and wife were not also working, we wouldn’t be able to afford both rent and food. We have had to cut our food rations—everything is impossible now. There are no savings,” says Masih.

What about his religious identity? How does it affect his standing and work? He is hesitant to say much. After some gentle probing, he opens up a little. “We are simple folk. We want the best for everyone,” he says of his community’s sentiments towards others.

“We have deep respect for both Allah and His Prophet (peace be upon him). We respect all prophets. Normally, people do not bother us [because of our religious identity]. But sometimes, when someone associates our [sanitation] work with our [religious] identity, it is hurtful,” says Masih.

“Even then, we exercise restraint and are extremely cautious about our behaviour, statements and reactions,” he says. This he needs to do because; according to him “even a minor issue can blow up against us.”

What about social safety support in case of any threats to him and others like him from the sanitation community? “In several areas in the city, we have a designated elder who acts as an advisor and interlocutor for our [Christian] community. In case anyone threatens us or if we feel we need help, we report to him and he intercedes on our behalf with the local elders, including district administration officials and maulvis, to defuse the situation before it becomes a problem. Thank God I haven’t faced any problems so far, but I know of instances when our elder has had to intervene to resolve issues with others,” he says.

When asked about his rights as a human, citizen and community member, he says, “Who bothers/ cares about us?” “Nobody checks on us,” he says matter-of-factly. His response, though half expected, is jarring.

“Only God really cares about us. Nobody can take from us what is predestined,” says the worker, “whatever will be, will be,” he adds with untainted conviction.

Has he heard of Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jilani’s 2014 judgement directing the state to enforce the rights of all citizens from religious minorities? No, he hasn’t.

But he agrees that everyone has equal rights. “It is the government’s concern what to do about it],” Shahbaz says resignedly while referring to the judgment. “If the government gives us our rights, we’ll welcome it. But if it doesn’t, what can we do?” he adds fatalistically.

“Not too much to ask for, is it?”

With about a third of his life spent as a sanitation worker, cleaning up after others who are too oblivious or too ungrateful to even acknowledge it, what dreams does he still carry for his remaining years?

“A government job for my middle son, matriculation for my youngest child, marriage for my eldest son, no careers in sanitation for any of my children, a two-marla house of her own for my wife and a new motorcycle for myself,” Masih tells TNS. “Not too much to ask for, is it?” he says while getting up.

The summer sun is already blazing. Masih rolls up his sleeves to swat away the heat and smooths down his hair. He wears his mud-encrusted slippers. Work goes on.

This feature was commissioned by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan as part of a series of profiles of sanitation workers across the country. These profiles are being released as part of the Shakeel Pathan Labour Studies Series, which documents working conditions across various sectors and provides policy recommendations advocating the right to dignity and decent work for vulnerable labour groups.

The writer is a freelance contributor

Work above all else