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Death of Pakistani Christian sanitary workers deplored

Many sanitary workers die, many become disabled due to accidents caused by lack of safety gear, says rights group
A sanitary worker cleans a sewer with the help of colleagues in a residential area in Lahore, on March 9, 2022.

A sanitary worker cleans a sewer with the help of colleagues in a residential area in Lahore, on March 9, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 18, 2024 11:42 AM GMT
Updated: March 18, 2024 11:59 AM GMT

A human rights group has expressed shock and strongly criticized authorities after two young Christian sanitary workers died accidentally while cleaning a choked sewage line without protective gear.

Cousins Asif Masih, 25, and Shan Masih, 28, died on March 17 after they entered a sewer in Faisalabad city of Pakistan’s Punjab province, media reports say.

The men were without hygienic kits and protective gear which led them to death by suffocation due to poisonous gas. Such fatalities are a common occurrence among sanitary workers, mostly from the impoverished Christian community.

Angry relatives of the victims blocked a road for hours to demand justice before the police intervened to break up the protest.

The deaths of Asif Masih and Shan Masih were "murders through duty," said Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP) in a statement on March 18.

The group said it carried out a fact-finding mission on the deaths, met the families of the victims and ensured every possible support to them.

The deceased sanitary workers were “forced” to enter the chocked manhole of the sewage without any protection, the HRFP alleged.

The cousins were employees of the state-run Water Sanitation Authority (WASA), and they were tasked to clean the sewage outside a wedding hall by a private company owner, reports say.

“Such incidents involving sanitary workers are not new, they have been occurring for years,” said Naveed Walter, HRFP president.

He said his group has raised the issue of safety with the relevant authorities several times, urging them to ensure protective gear and other precautionary measures. But there were no developments yet.

The untimely demise of the two Christian workers highlighted once again various forms of discrimination and abuses they faced, besides low wages and lack of recognition.

"Sanitary workers are one of the most marginalized segments of society," Walter said.

Based on data compiled by his group, he said about 90 percent of sanitary workers in Faisalabad are poor Christians who face constant discrimination, exploitation, and abuse.

Following years of advocacy on behalf of the workers, the HRFP filed a writ petition with the Lahore High Court in 2015 seeking protection of sanitary workers and their human rights.

The court directed the local administration to resolve the issues and ensure protection and other measures to better their lives. But even after several years, the authorities did little to implement the court order.

“Many died, many became disabled, and many others have been afflicted with different kinds of health issues. Their families have no social security, insurance, or any kind of protection measures during and after such incidents,” HRFP said.

Such murder of sanitary workers due to negligence is “unacceptable,” it added.

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