Unheard And Unseen: The Unspoken Plight Of Sanitation Workers

Sanitation workers in Pakistan have to contend not only with unsafe working conditions, they are actively discriminated against along caste and religious lines.

Unheard And Unseen: The Unspoken Plight Of Sanitation Workers

Ehtisham Lal, an 18-year-old hockey player, committed suicide on September 23rd because he could not bear the shame of his parents working as sanitary workers in the Tehsil Municipal Administration of Haroonabad.

Karam Chand, Ehtisham’s uncle, has allegedly accused sanitary supervisor Shahid Farooq and sanitary inspector Shahid Latif of mistreating workers and using verbal abuse against Ehtisham's parents. Pervez Lal, the supervisor, mentioned that their son used to assist both parents.

Chand stated that an FIR has also been registered, but awaits action. Furthermore, he mentioned that Ehtisham's last words before committing suicide were, 'Death is better than this job.' His family also protested after his death.

A study titled "Shame and Stigma in Sanitation" revealed that between 2011 and 2021, approximately nine workers died in Sindh, along with eleven in Punjab and one in Islamabad as per the media's reporting of cases.  

Numerous workers die annually, due to substandard equipment and the lack of timely aid. As per a recent report by the United Workers Union DMC East, Karachi, more than ten sewer men have lost their lives in Pakistan in the year 2023. Most of them were employed privately as daily wagers.

In a fact-finding report by the National Commission for Human Rights titled 'Unequal Citizens,' published in 2022, it was reported that more than '300 discriminatory ads' to hire non-Muslims as sanitary/sewer workers was published from 2011 to 2021. The majority of these ads were from Punjab and Sindh.

A historical perspective

Asif Aqeel, Researcher and Deputy Director of the Center for Law and Justice, an NGO striving to protect labor rights in sanitation, stated that the foundational problem faced by these workers stems from discrimination based on ‘religion and caste.’ 

Aqeel mentioned that many of these sanitary workers belong to a specific caste that compels them to follow this occupation for generations. He pointed out that issues related to this occupation have their origin in the social caste system of the subcontinent that attaches a stigma to their birth with the occupation. According to the International Labor Organization, Pakistan has rampant discrimination based on caste and religion. 

Shafeeq Sadiq, who has been working for seven years as a sewer worker, said that he does not want his son to follow the same occupation. Sadiq said, “It’s not written on our head that we are obliged to send our children in the same field.”  Sadiq, like other non-regularized workers, was made permanent after four years.

Sanitation and sewer workers in Pakistan are mostly Punjabi Christians and Hindus. Many Dalit Hindus converted to other religions during British colonial rule, yet they still face caste-based discrimination today. Derogatory terms like 'chuhra' or 'bangi' stem from the historical practice of relegating Dalits to menial jobs. This discrimination persists, perpetuating racial judgment.

Aqeel added that ‘society views occupations ‘hierarchically’. Aqeel emphasized that the lives of these sewer workers are not considered important, and they are often viewed as 'subhuman,' relegating them to the lowest rungs of humanity. He further explained that this distinction makes it possible to segregate them, on the basic of religion, caste, and lack of education.

There are two prevailing systems: technology-intensive and human-intensive, Aqeel stated. He added that the system followed in Pakistan is human-intensive, which involves manual scavenging.

In the international community, it has been established that 'no one should come in contact with human excreta,' Aqeel added, as it is against 'human dignity.' In Pakistan, sewer workers come into contact with human feces, which is one of the reasons why they receive less respect.

In Pakistan, no law has been enacted to ban manual scavenging, and the government heavily relies on Christian workers for sewer work, as many Muslims have refused to do this job. More than 60% of the sanitary workers belong to the Christian community, with the remaining being Hindus from the scheduled caste.

Gulfam Masih, who works as a private worker for Karachi Water & Sewerage Board (KWSB), mentioned that it has been four months since he and his colleagues have received their salaries. Masih stated that they have been informed about the possibility of obtaining permanent positions, but he has been working for two and a half years without such status.

This year, six workers from Sindh have died including Babar Masih, Roshan Poran, Karan Poran, Faqira Ram, Bakht Alaam and Hazrat Ullah. On May 7, 2023, the body of 32-year-old Babar Masih was found several days after he drowned in a manhole in Karachi. Babar Masih, like other private workers, lacked proper safety measures. 

While discussing the involvement of contractors instead of the government in sewer management, Aqeel said that when contractors are awarded tenders, the government becomes less liable for the responsibility of these workers. 

Laxman, a family member of two Hindu brothers, Roshan and Poran, said that both were fathers to six and three children, respectively, and were working as private laborers in Karachi. They passed away on the 6th of May. 

Sewerage in Karachi

Aftab Chandio, Chief Engineer at Karachi Water & Sewerage Board (KSWB), stated that the sewerage infrastructure is as old as Pakistan itself, as it has been in use for 70 years. Karachi has a pre-partition system that is now being replaced. The design life for these systems is typically 20 to 30 years, but they have exceeded 50 years in operation. To replace these structures, KSWB has initiated projects with the World Bank. He emphasized that the delay in replacing this infrastructure necessitates a significant investment in the billions of rupees. Moreover, he mentioned that while machines are being employed to assist in sewer maintenance, they have not entirely replaced manual scavenging.

There are currently 84 sewerage machines in use in Karachi, with an additional 23 to be added to the fleet. Machines can mainly reach depths of 15 to 20 feet with 300-foot lines to clear blockages, and they operate from above.

There are 200 workers hired on a contract basis for 89 days, with the possibility of renewal for permanent employment, he said. Adding more he said that further initiatives involve mechanizing Karachi and replacing human contact with machines.

Currently, KSWB employs more than 2,000 sewer workers. Protective gear for the workers includes masks, boots, uniforms, and shoes, said Chandio. However, most of workers in interview mentioned that ropes, belts, and baskets are the equipment provided to clean manholes. When asked about safety, many expressed concerns that with these limited pieces of equipment, their lives cannot be adequately protected.

Furthermore, he added that the welfare of sewer workers is kept intact with salaries, medical benefits, and insurance. In the event of a sewer worker's death, their children are recruited based on their education level, he further mentioned. 

Healthcare workers, including sanitary and sewer workers, were interviewed from both the Sindh Solid Waste Board Management and the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board. Sanitary workers from the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board, as interviewed, said they do not have insurance or medical cards. In contrast, sewer workers employed by the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board receive insurance and medical cards, but these benefits are limited to regular workers only.

Aslam Junaid, a worker with the Sindh Solid Waste Management Board, was given permanent status, after working for more than twenty years. Gulzar Masih, a private sewer worker at KSWB, said that he has been working for 2.5 years on daily wages, but still strives to get permanent worker status.

Urban planning and loopholes

Zahid Farooq of the Urban Resource Center stated that Karachi is experiencing 'unplanned' expansion as its infrastructure weakens day by day. In Karachi, waste water treatment plants TP1, TP2, and TP3 are currently non-functional, impacting water supply. Additionally, the planned treatment plant for toxic tannery waste has not been implemented as promised.

More than thirty drains and nallas dispose into the Lyari River and Malir River, eventually making their way to the sea, causing pollution. The sewerage issue in Karachi is worsening day by day. Our sewerage system does not meet international standards because we do not invest in it, lack proper planning, and even lack maps, Farooq added.

Farooq as an expert in urban planning said that the solution lies in mapping the sewerage channels and establishing an authority responsible for efficiently managing drain cleanliness, as currently, no authority owns them. Additionally, the treatment plants need restoration, and Karachi's water and sewerage systems should be separated.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist passionate about human rights, social issues, and minority advocacy.