by Zishan Ahmad Siddiqui
he plight of Pakistan’s sanitation workers is not a case that is given much space in our otherwise profoundly vibrant political and societal discourse. Only a few of the horrific accidents the sanitation workers meet while fixing our sewers etc get reported. The number of accidents and consequent loss of life is disproportionately large.
Reports produced by some international organisations in collaboration with local partners point to the hazards the sanitation workers face routinely. Recent studies carried out across South Asia region, including Pakistan, have brought to life some shocking facts about the morbidity of their working conditions.
The number of Pakistan’s sanitation workers remains a matter of conjecture. Most of them are employed in the public sector. The organisations that employ sanitation workers include Public Health Departments, municipal corporations, Water and Sewerage Boards and Development Authorities. Also, all public offices of the federal, provincial and district governments employ sanitation workers for cleaning of office premises. In addition to this, large scale private sector housing companies and projects also employ sanitation workers in large clusters.
The information made public by some of these institutions allows an estimation of the number of sanitation workers. However, the information remains incomplete and therefore understated. The fact that sanitation work is categorised as unskilled in the surveys makes the count harder.
Most of the sanitation workers employed by the public sector organisations are recruited in the lowest job grade [i.e. BS-1]. “These workers are entitled to all the employment benefits admissible as per government rules. However, enforcement of the rules that benefit sanitation workers remain feeble,” says Boota Masih, a sanitation worker.
The employment regimes recently adopted by most of the metropolitan corporations have further distressed the present and prospective sanitation workers. The employment of sanitation workers is being outsourced to third-party vendors. These vendors offer temporary employment contracts to sanitation workers. Also, most of the public offices, eligible to employ cleaning staff, have started eliminating regular vacancies for sanitation workers. Instead, many public offices are now placing sanitation workers in a category known as ‘contingency staff’. Such provisional contracting modalities not only imply compromised wages but also preclude the incumbents from availing health, social security and protection benefits.
Having no other options the sanitation workers are forced to accept the temporary employment contracts and get meager wages. The terms and conditions under such provisional recruitment modalities are far poorer than the standards set by the national labour laws. This is a sheer violation of the national labour laws.
Sanitation work is stigmatized and only vulnerable minority communities are believed to be suitable for it.
Sanitation workers being coerced to undertake hazardous tasks without appropriate safety gear and tools is a frequent problem.
In some areas there are now rules requiring that certain particularly hazardous jobs be performed using suitable machines so as not to endanger workers’ lives. Other rules call for provision of adequate tools and personal protective equipment. However, enforcement of such provisions remains week and irregular. Lack of adequate personal protective equipment and tools and instruments makes the sanitation workers highly prone to health hazards.
The first thing the governments must do is prioritise waste and sanitation management. This will pave the way for a strengthening of the legal framework to regulate the waste and sanitation management systems. The government should also consider regulating the public services delivery systems using third party audit.
Community-based waste and sanitation management systems need strengthening. Such a dispensation will not only help reduce the fiscal stress on the local governments but also the managerial burden.
The sole mandate of waste and sanitation management system should be devolution to grassroots level communal institutions i.e. municipalities and union councils. Such an endeavour will require an adequate fiscal decentralisation. Such administrative reform will pave the way for strengthening of local institutions. Let the responsibility of cleaning and managing waste be transferred to those who produce it.
The recruitment and employment of sanitation workers must comply with the government employment rules. The government must repudiate the contractual/provisional modality for recruitment and employment of sanitation workers. The government should also start regularising the services of contract workers. Measures like mechanical cleaning of sewers should be given stronger legal cover.
Last but not the least, a change in behaviour of the masses [read: waste producers] is essential. Let us educate ourselves and our children. We should sort out our waste before it is disposed of. Proper waste disposal demonstrably reduces the hazards that sanitation workers are exposed to.
Also, let us not stereotype our sanitation workers. Also, let us not forget that cleanliness is a collective responsibility. The sanitation and cleaning work is not ordained for minority citizens only.