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Sanitation workers: The forgotten frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19

  • Sanitation workers: The forgotten frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19
    Iliyasu Abbas, the Chief Evacuator, scoops human excreta into a bucket to be then transferred into another container for Aminu Usiani to pour in to a drum that has been loaded on to a truck. Tudun Bojuwa area, Fagge Local government area of Kano state, Nigeria. September 2021. Credit: WaterAid/ Nelson Owoicho
  • Sanitation workers: The forgotten frontline workers in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. New studies from WaterAid reveal COVID-19 has exacerbated already horrendous conditions for sanitation workers around the world.

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During the pandemic sanitation workers have been praised as ‘COVID warriors’ in some nations but WaterAid has found many of these workers in developing countries have been forgotten, underpaid, unprotected and left to fend for themselves.

Research carried out by WaterAid at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic on the safety and wellbeing of those who clear and dispose of fecal waste, reveals hazardous working conditions, a dangerous lack of PPE, poor training and legal protection, as well as loss of income for millions.

Ahead of World Toilet Day on the 19th November, findings from South Asia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria show that:

  • 40% of sanitation workers interviewed in India and 39% interviewed in Bangladesh lacked any handwashing facilities at work.
  • 1/3 of sanitation workers interviewed in Nepal did not receive any PPE from their employers
  • 80% of interviewed sanitation workers in Burkina Faso thought the PPE they were given was unsuitable and even made accidents more likely
  • More than 1/3 of workers in Bangladesh feared losing their jobs if they stopped working during the lockdown
  • Around half of the respondents (66% in Bangladesh; 44% in India; 50% in Pakistan; 61% in Nepal) reported challenges in meeting their daily expenses 
  • 48% of sanitation workers interviewed in Bangladesh saw their incomes reduced during the pandemic

Sanitation workers include people who clean toilets and sewers, empty latrine pits and septic tanks and operate pumping stations and treatment plants as well as those who clear fecal waste manually, sweep garbage and transport fecal sludge. WaterAid’s findings also include solid waste workers and cleaners.

Despite providing a vital service ensuring human waste is cleared, stored and disposed of safely, WaterAid found sanitation workers are often marginalized, stigmatized and shunned as a result of their job. Many have worked on the frontline of the pandemic, throughout national lockdowns, in hospitals and quarantine centres and in the heart of communities with poor access to safe water, decent sanitation and good hygiene facilities.

Vishal Jeenwal (26), a street sweeper, cleans himself with a water hose after working as cleaner at a factory in Geetanjali colony. Loni, Ghaziabad, India. 28 August 2021. Credit:WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee

Sometimes, I come into contact with human feces in my work, but I can only wipe it off with a cloth. There are no handwashing stations where I work so I have to wait to go back to the office to wash my hands - Kona Nagmoni Lata, 34, a street sweeper from Bangladesh

Many sanitation workers told WaterAid they felt forced to go to work during lockdown even if they felt ill, for fear of losing their jobs. In India, 23% of sanitation workers interviewed had to work for longer hours during the pandemic, taking on an additional two to six hours per day while some hospital sanitation workers were even asked to work up to 30 hours continuously without additional payment.

Even without the threat of the virus, sanitation work is hazardous. The workforce risk being exposed to a wide variety of health hazards and disease and can often come into direct contact with human waste. Sharp objects in pit latrines and poor construction can cause injury and infection while toxic gases can make workers lose consciousness or even kill them.

The major risks we face during our work are harassment, injury, loss of a limb or our lives. About two years ago, while emptying a pit at night, a concrete block from the toilet structure broke off and fell on my head.  - Iliyasu Abbas, 50, a pit latrine and septic tank emptier in Nigeria

In some countries sanitation workers face widespread and systemic discrimination. WaterAid spoke to one young man in India from a family involved in manual scavenging (which involves dealing with human excreta directly, either from dry latrines, open drains, sewers or railway tracks) who has been unable to find alternative employment due to stigma surrounding his caste, despite having a degree in Social Sciences from Delhi University.

Vishal Jeenwal, 26, a street sweeper, belonging to Valmiki community, one of the most marginalised Dalit caste groups in India, tried to find office work but told WaterAid that as soon as his employers discovered his caste, his job became untenable. 

They said that someone like me could never succeed in any other job. I tried several other jobs, but finally, out of desperation, I went back to doing what I’d seen my family do all their lives – cleaning. - Vishal Jeenwal, 26, a street sweeper in India

Kamlesh Taank, 55, has been cleaning dry latrines in a town near the Indian capital, Delhi, for the past 35 years. She used to cover her nose and mouth because she found the smell so repulsive but didn't use any extra protective clothing or worry about social distancing during the pandemic. 

Higher castes don’t want to come near people like me. You could say I’ve always been socially distanced from my employers. - Kamlesh Taank, 55, cleaner of dry latrines in India

WaterAid’s film team have shed light on the practice of manual scavenging in ‘The Burden of Inheritance’ - a short film telling the story of a marginalized community in India trapped in a cycle of poverty.  The film will premiere on the streaming platform WaterBear on World Toilet Day, giving visibility and a voice to an excluded and silenced section of society.

Dr Andrés Hueso González, Senior Policy Analyst at WaterAid said: It’s vital governments, local authorities, employers and the general public take action to support sanitation workers so they can do their job safely, with the dignity and recognition they deserve. These key workers should be protected through legislation, policies and guidelines that ensure workers have appropriate PPE, regular training, a decent wage and access to health insurance and social security. Sanitation workers also need to be recognized, respected and supported by institutions and by individual citizens. We all have a role to play in tackling and removing the deep-rooted discrimination they have endured for far too long.

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