Authorities must urgently protect sanitation workers risking their lives on the Covid-19 frontlinesIssues of stigma and discrimination against sanitation workers are reported across South Asia and it has further worsened during the pandemic as various organisations urge governments to protect these workers.
As the UN observed World Toilet Day on Thursday, Amnesty International, WaterAid and the International Dalit Solidarity Network called on the authorities in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to take immediate action to protect the sanitation workers who hae been risking their lives as Covid-19 frontliners.
According to a joint statement released by these organisations, across South Asia, workers cleaning toilets and streets, emptying latrine pits and maintaining sewers are faced with acute health and safety risks. However, they lack adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), training support to cope with risks, job security, social security, health insurance and access to handwashing facilities.
The three organisations have appealed to the national governments and local authorities in Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to urgently provide immediate support and implement protective measures to help sanitation and waste workers cope with the heightened risks of the pandemic.
The caste dimension of sanitation work in these countries also means that workers are highly stigmatised and discriminated against when accessing services or seeking other occupations, the statement said.
A new research by WaterAid in Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh showed that the Covid-19 pandemic worsened the situation for the vast majority of these workers. Some have even been redeployed to service Covid-19 quarantine centres with limited training on Covid-19 related risks or how to use PPE, the study found.
The WaterAid study further found that these workers' financial security has also been affected either due to increased but non-compensated working hours in some cases, and reduced demand for their services in others. Likewise, their transportation costs increased due to lockdowns and many had to buy face masks and other equipment that their employers did not regularly provide.
“Sanitation workers are the hidden workforce keeping towns and cities in South Asia functioning throughout the pandemic, but they work in very poor and too often life-threatening conditions and are subject to stigma and discrimination based on caste and religion,” Vanita Suneja, South Asia Regional Advocacy Manager at WaterAid, said. “Covid-19 and related lockdowns have exacerbated these risks, especially among the many sanitation workers informally employed. Most female sanitation workers are informal workers risking their lives every day. The safety and dignity of these workers have been disproportionately affected.”
The International Dalit Solidarity Network has campaigned to raise the plight of low caste sanitation workers, being lowered into sewers or cleaning dry latrines with no protective equipment. Many of these workers “inherit” these occupations due to their designated status in the caste system. This status has travelled with them to countries like Bangladesh, where many street sweepers are Dalits and live in segregation in sweepers’ colonies.
“These workers are not asking for a medal. They are asking for their rights and dignity to be respected and that the same concern authorities are showing for the health and safety of other segments of the population is also extended to them,” said Meena Varma, Executive Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network.
Issues of stigma and discrimination against sanitation workers are reported across South Asia. Amnesty International has appealed for action in India urging the government to ensure dignity and protection of sanitation workers.
An estimated five million sanitation workers, mostly belonging to Dalit communities, are forced to work as manual scavengers to clean faecal sludge in sewers, septic tanks, etc.
“Many of the sanitation workers are Dalits, the so-called lowest caste in South Asia. Because of their descent, they are historically subjected to extreme forms of indignity, oppression, exclusion, and discrimination. Their already marginalised position is even further compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary-General at Amnesty International. “It beggars belief that anyone should be forced into the practice of manually cleaning and carrying human excrement, often simply because of their birth. Governments must take urgent action to protect the rights of these workers and immediately stop anybody from being subject to this illegal, degrading, and inhumane treatment.”