“Dignity, safety and human rights for sanitation workers”
19 November 2019
The human rights of millions of sanitation workers, in particular informal workers, have been violated for a long time, despite the critical importance of their role. Amid stigma, low pay, informality and hazardous working conditions, many of them lose their lives while they are at work as a result of asphyxiation and “sewer deaths”. Very often, it is the omission of governments to comply with their human rights obligations that gives room for those unacceptable situations.
Some of the earliest records of history show how the role of sanitation workers is inherently linked to civilization: in the Indus Valley Civilization, which developed from 2600 to 1900 years BC, they installed toilets, built drains and cleaned basins. Today, informal sanitation workers continue to carry out difficult tasks, such as emptying latrines and cleaning sewers and drains. Without the quiet, daily efforts of millions of sanitary workers, often invisible to the rest of the population, sewers would flood with wastes, water sources would be contaminated, odor in cities would be intolerable and unsanitary conditions would quickly cause the spread of infectious diseases.
The importance of their work has not, unfortunately, lead to the social recognition they deserve and the safe and dignified working conditions they need: too often, sanitary workers lack the necessary protection, leading to infections, exposure to hazardous gases and chemicals, cuts, abrasions, injuries and, in the worst cases, death. Due the informality of the job, and the hazards involved, it is usually persons living in poverty, migrants, ethnic minorities, castes considered the lowest and women who play the role of sanitation workers. In many countries, they are not unionized, affecting their capacity to defend their labor rights.
During my mandate, I have observed with concern discrimination against some of the most vulnerable sanitation workers, the manual scavengers, who clean latrines and sewers and handle human excreta by hand. Despite attempts to put an end to manual scavenging through legislation, there are still women and men cleaning public and private toilets, collecting excrement in latrines and open drains who, as a result, suffer from deplorable housing and living conditions. While the practice has complex roots, people practicing manual scavenging are sometimes bound by insurmountable social pressure to continue their degrading tasks in many villages and cities.
Governments need to take urgent measures in order to protect the human rights of sanitation workers. Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 requires substantially increasing the working force in the sanitation sector, which will make it necessary to offer dignified and safe conditions in order to attract and retain enough sanitation workers. Governments have also committed to Sustainable Development Goal 8, which requires decent conditions for all workers, including those in the sanitation sector. Adequate commitment of governments in realizing their obligations under the human rights to water and sanitation would be the best way to abolish unacceptable working conditions of informal sanitation workers.
I am confident that this year’s World Toilet Day will contribute to raise awareness on the difficulties faced by sanitation workers and on the importance of their job, hopefully helping to bring them dignity, safer jobs and respect for their human rights.