Javed Laal, a Christian sanitary worker, with his award from the Center for Law and Justice at the ceremony on Dec. 3. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
Saira Javed struggles to find utensils during lunch breaks while cleaning the roads of Lahore.
“People avoid serving us meals on plates. Restaurants hand over food in plastic bags and most of the families refuse to provide a glass of water. Roadside taps are our only respite. Our brooms can clean the roads but can’t wipe away the stigma of brains,” Javed, 42, told UCA News.
“One unscheduled leave results in the loss of three days’ wage. The officials also refuse us the monthly ration (sanctioned by Lahore Waste Management Company LWMC). When we complain, they abuse me calling me churi, and threaten termination.”
Despite 13 years’ experience, the mother of four only gets 12,000 rupees (US$75) out of the monthly salary of 19,000 rupees. “It affects the educational expense of our children. We demand justice,” she said.
Javed was one of the 10 sanitary workers awarded last week at the Second Dignity Awards Ceremony organized by the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ).
According to Mary James Gill, director of CLJ, the awards honored contributions of sanitary workers and their supporters.
“The department heads ignore them. For many, they don’t even exist. State laws also stigmatize them. Labor laws don’t protect their occupational safety,” she said.
“Besides lifting the toxic hospital waste, those deputed in Covid-19 quarantine centers even provide food and medicine to patients, change bedding, and are involved in tasks refused by support staff.
“Viruses are part of their daily tasks. But the coronavirus was a blessing in disguise. The awareness resulted in the provision of personal protective equipment to sanitary workers in these centers.”
With 3,119 new cases – the third consecutive daily rise of over 3,000 infections – the country’s tally has reached 413,191, according to data shared by the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) on Dec. 5.
This April a five-member bench of the apex court, under Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed ordered the federal and provincial governments, including Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad Capital Territory administration, to provide protective gear to sanitation workers.
“The condition of sanitary staff is also not good. No effective care is being provided to them. They too are working on the frontlines in the fight against the pandemic,” the apex court stated in its order.
In 2016, Punjab's government struck down the policy of recruiting only non-Muslims for sanitation jobs. Even so, government advertisements continue to display sweeper jobs only for Christians.
This September, the Karachi-based government job advertisement widely circulated in Urdu newspaper Jang specified that only “non-Muslims” can seek jobs of sanitary workers.
Christian activists and rights groups often point out what they describe as a discriminatory job policy that further marginalizes and belittles the country’s tiny minority population.
Last month a Muslim TikToker in Lahore sparked an outcry from social media users after she used the derogatory term for her Christian maid while making a video. She later apologized.
Pakistani Christians are often referred as chura (low caste), an abusive term reserved for sanitation workers.
According to CLJ, 70 LWMC workers died while cleaning sewers last year.
This October, two sanitary workers died after inhaling poisonous gases while working inside a chocked sewer in Karachi. Managing director of Karachi water board Asadullah Khan later announced provision of safety kits for sewer workers.
In 2017, Irfan Masih of Umer Kot, Sindh province, died after being denied timely treatment by Muslim doctors, who were fasting and refused to touch his filth-covered body. Social security laws provide 500,000 rupees compensation in case of the death of sanitation workers.
According to Christian sanitary workers, their Muslim colleagues refuse to enter the sewers and usually just monitor the work. They also complained of a lack of safety equipment as well as a seniority-based promotion system in waste management companies.
Javed Laal, a Christian sanitary worker at Baldia division, is still awaiting the promised oxygen kits. Despite 27 years’ service, he is still awaiting promotion beyond grade three.
“Workers in several towns of Karachi are cleaning sewers with only a rope, bucket, and a hammer. Hospitals nominated, on our health panel, hesitate to admit our workers. A phone call from influential persons is always needed for commendation,” he said.
According to Samuel Pyara, chairman of the Implementation Minority Rights Forum, media outlets rarely report these casualties.
“Most complaints from sanitary workers are from the southern Sindh province. We are drafting the first bill for sanitary workers following directives from the Attorney-General and Minister of Law. Recommendations are being gathered for lawmaking,” he said.