Islamabad: Sanitation workers from 24 districts gathered in the federal capital on International Human Rights Day and demanded that the government and society treat them as human beings. Social stigma, hatred, and prejudicial treatment towards sanitation workers, as if they were outcasts, were the root cause of the horrible treatment they received from society in general and the state in particular.
The program titled “The First Dignity Convention and 4th Annual Dignity Awards Ceremony for Promoting Dignity and Decent Working Conditions for Sanitation Workers in Pakistan” presented a chart expressing “deepest respect and gratitude for sanitation workers irrespective of their social status, gender, religion, sect, caste, colour or ethnicity.”
Opening the program, French Ambassador to Pakistan, His Excellency Mr. Nicolas Galey, said the plight of sanitation workers was overlooked, which is why the French government had extended support to these marginalised workers.
Workers who had gathered from all four provinces strongly condemned the “dehumanising attitude towards sanitation workers”. They demanded that school textbooks and public service messages be brought forth to discourage the inhuman treatment of the workers.
According to the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ), one of the program’s organisers, each year, hundreds of workers die while opening clogged sewer lines and cleaning busy roads. Because the workers are not provided with safety equipment, most suffer from skin and lung diseases, said CLJ Executive Director Mary James Gill. “Workers do not have financial security and health coverage”.
“Sanitation is an essential service and falls under the ambit of the local government”, said Common Law Chambers senior counsel Syed Ali Raza Shah, who presented a white paper on laws related to sanitation workers. “Unfortunately, the work is neither treated as labour nor as service by the state functionaries, which shows there is little seriousness about sanitation and the workers who perform these duties.”
People generally dislike associating with sanitation workers, eating or drinking or even shaking hands with them. Despite providing essential services, workers are not provided with safety equipment. “This is because sanitation workers are not considered human beings,” said Chaudhry Waris Masih, General Secretary of United Workers Union DMC East. “Sanitation is dangerous, so the weakest sections of society are forced into this labour.”
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 requires providing clean water and sanitation to everyone, especially those left furthest behind in development. Pakistan was the first country to pledge to achieve the United Nations’ SDGs by 2030, known as Agenda 2030.
Government advertisements clearly demand only non-Muslims for this labour. “The issue is of human rights, labour rights and minorities’ rights,” said Ms Gill. “The issue arises from the Indian caste system, but very little attention has been paid to eradicate this evil practice in Pakistan.”
Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO), Mojaz and Peace and Justice Network provided support in organising the program. “Some of the workers travelled for three days to be in the capital and we had expected visible presence of state functionaries, but there was little representation from the government quarters,” said Ms Gill. Syed Kausar Abbas, SSDO Executive Director, called upon the government and policymakers to consider the charter of demand by the workers, urging them to “stop employing sanitation workers under temporary and short-term contracts that serve as a tool to force the workers in dangerous working conditions.
The program participants urged the media, international organisations and the government to consider workers as stakeholders rather than considering them only as commodities. Peace and Justice Network Executive Director Syed Raza Ali said workers were essential to keep our daily life going smoothly. “The concept of attaching birth with occupation must end as it is particularly prevalent in the sanitation sector”.
Participants included prominent journalists, parliamentarians, civil society organisation members and lawyers. The workers and participants demanded that attaching sanitation work with religious minorities is a misnomer and brings a bad name to the country, which is why there is a need to destigmatise and make it safe labour.