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Pakistan’s sanitary workers risk life and limb for a pittance

Christians account for 80 percent of such workers despite making up less than two percent of population
Two Pakistani cleaners sweep a street in this undated image. Majority of the nation's sanitary workers, cleaners and sweepers are poor, low-paid Christians who face rampant social and institutionalized neglect and discrimination.

Two Pakistani cleaners sweep a street in this undated image. The majority of the nation's sanitary workers, cleaners and sweepers are poor, low-paid Christians who face rampant social and institutionalized neglect and discrimination. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 07, 2024 03:18 AM GMT
Updated: May 07, 2024 04:59 AM GMT

Asad Allen rushed to Liaquat University Hospital in Hyderabad city after he heard his brother-in-law Aamir Maseeh, 30, and his cousin Azeem Azmi, 25, both sanitary workers, were critically injured while cleaning a septic tank on March 8.

His worst fear that they might not survive came true shortly as both succumbed to their injuries despite frantic efforts by the doctors to save them.

Allen 23, a Catholic, was not just shocked but also anxious about the fate of the widows and children of the deceased as the men were the sole breadwinners for their families.

“They were parents to two children each and they left behind their wives,” Allen lamented.

“Who will fend for them now? Their salaries weren’t enough even when they were alive. And now they are no more,” he told UCA News.

Allen said Maseeh earned about 1,000 rupees (US$3.59) per day, while Azmi, who was an employee of a firm called Green Dall Mills where he died cleaning the tank, used to get a monthly salary of 25,000 rupees, far below the minimum wage of 32,000 rupees.

"Most Pakistani sanitary workers are poor, low-paid Christians who inherited the work from their forefathers"

The families of the two sanitary workers declined to comment on whether they received remuneration from the factory or not. Allen said their families were unwilling to file legal cases against the company.

Police in the Sindh province city said Maseeh and Azmi died after they entered the 1.5-metre (15 foot) septic tank at the factory without protective gear, leaving them vulnerable to poisonous gas.

The two workers were among nearly two dozen sanitary workers, mostly Christians, who died at work in Pakistan over the past decade, reports say.

Most Pakistani sanitary workers are poor, low-paid Christians who inherited the work from their forefathers in a country where Muslims avoid the job as it is considered “impure.”

Due to their menial jobs, Christian sanitary workers face social discrimination from the majority, rights activists say.

Though Christians make up less than two percent of Pakistan’s more than 241 million people, they account for 80 percent of the total workforce employed as sanitary workers.

They are tasked with collecting waste, sweeping streets, and cleaning drains and sewage pipes, says a 2022 report by the National Commission of Human Rights in Pakistan titled “Unequal Citizens.”

The report also noted that from 2011 to 2021, the authorities published 300 job advertisements for sanitary and sewer workers, that were only available to non-Muslims. They effectively targeted Christians and were discriminatory in language.

"In most cases, sanitary workers perform their tasks without masks or gloves to protect them from the sludge and toxic gas"

Most of these advertisements were issued by the water and sanitation departments of the Punjab and Sindh provincial governments.

For many years, rights groups have campaigned for safe working conditions for sanitary workers.

In 2015, Human Rights Focus Pakistan petitioned the Lahore High Court seeking protection and rights for sanitary workers.

The court issued a directive to the government to ensure protection and other measures to improve the lives of these workers. The court order has yet to be implemented.

In most cases, sanitary workers perform their tasks without masks or gloves to protect them from the sludge and toxic gas that are found in septic tanks and sewers.

Cleaners mostly clear clogged pipes by using long bamboo poles. If that doesn’t work, they dive down the manholes to clean the excreta with their bare hands. Most develop skin and respiratory diseases after encountering poisonous fumes. 

Under the Sindh Occupation Safety and Health Act, 2017, employers are required to provide sanitary workers with personal protection equipment (PPE), which is largely ignored.

As per a 2021 study titled “Shame and Stigma in Sanitation” by the Center for Law and Justice, between 2011 and 2021, nine sanitary workers died in Sindh, eleven in Punjab, and one in the capital city of Islamabad due to accidents.

"People are working as sanitary workers for 20-25 years and they don’t get promoted. Only Muslims are promoted"

Many Christians in Pakistan end up in low-paying jobs as they are poor and lack education opportunities, says Sheema Kermani, a women’s rights activist who founded the Tehrik-e-Niswan — a cultural action group that uses theater and performing arts to raise awareness on rights issues.

She also cited workplace discrimination as one of the reasons why Christians are unable to advance to higher-paying jobs in sanitary work. 

“The Christian community is also not given promotions,” Kermani said. “People are working as sanitary workers for 20-25 years and they don’t get promoted. Only Muslims are promoted."

The Karachi chapter of the Catholic rights body, National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), has campaigned for the payment of pensions for retired sanitary workers of the Karachi Municipal Corporation, a local government body in Pakistan’s port city and financial hub. 

“We also hold awareness seminars with these people [sanitary workers] and others who do risky jobs about their safety and security,” said Kashif Anthony, the NCJP's local coordinator. 

"We also meet their employers and urge them to provide safety gear," he added.

A lot more is needed to be done by Christian leaders for the rights of sanitary workers, says Kamran Gill, general secretary of the Punjab provincial branch of the Minorities Alliance Pakistan, a minority forum.

“I appeal to the government to do more for minorities because they are less in numbers, but must be treated as equals too,” he said.

Kermani said one reason why sanitary workers continue to suffer is that they are afraid to seek legal recourse against employers. 

“They get scared because they don’t want to lose their jobs,” she said.

“And they’re not even regular employees, the government awards contracts to hire sanitary workers to others who hire these people. So, the middlemen make more money than the ones who do the actual jobs,” she explained.

Allen, meanwhile, said every sanitary worker risks their life when they go down a manhole. 

"Gases don't discriminate," he said. "Toxic fumes either kill or injure seriously. And that's something sanitary workers have to live with."

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