The sanitation workers, who work for the preservation of sanitation systems, are among the most exploited, disadvantaged and discriminated members of society in the country.
Although there are approximately five to six million sanitation workers in Bangladesh, their occupational safety, health, employment and other issues are mostly overlooked in the legislative framework.
Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 and National Occupational Health and Safety Policy, 2013 provide some rules and protection for pit emptying work. However, the majority of the emptiers are from the informal sector and they don't have structured employment arrangements.
Labour Rule, 2015; City Corporation Act, 2009; Local Government (Amendment) Act, 2010; Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC), National Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Policy and National Strategy for Water Supply and Sanitation (NSWSS), 2014 are existing laws, guideline and policies that are relevant to occupational health and safety status and labour rights of sanitary workers.
These laws, policies and guidelines don’t properly support the sanitation workers for their temporary nature of work. Many of the standardized facilities and benefits are not applied for the sanitary workers even though the labour law ensures certain rights and privileges for them as most of them are temporary workers.
However, both the workers and employers don’t know that temporary workers are also entitled for many benefits such as maternity leave and paid leave.
Against this backdrop, the majority of sanitary workers don’t get legal remedies or benefit from the laws and policies. “Although the law covers the issue of sanitary workers, they are deprived of rights and other issues due to loopholes in the law, unawareness and lack of goodwill of employers. The labour law should cover the sanitation workers properly and the law should be applied properly,” said Advocate Md Kamruzzaman, a lawyer in Dhaka.
No one in their side yet as members of the sanitation workers’ community are still now considered inferior and neglected in the society. They perform their duties without tools, physical protection and legal protection.
Furthermore, due to their low social profile and economic status, their voice is not often heard by anyone who can really make changes.
In such a situation, the sanitation workers face various problems. There is no structured leave or termination process as most of the workers are either temporary or casual.
According to a recent study of OSHE Foundation, the sanitation workers, those who are over 35 years, face in eyesight problems. The female sanitation workers mostly suffer from kidney disease because of no access to toilet.
Doctors said that alongside eyesight problems and kidney diseases, the sanitation workers are at risk for several other diseases including skin disease, respiratory problems, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio, blunt trauma and gastroenteritis.
“Most of the sanitation workers suffer from eyesight problems or respiratory problems or any other problem as these happen because of continuous exposure to toxic waste,” said Dr Ashik Anwar Bahar, an associate professor at Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College.
Alongside the diseases, the sanitation workers face substantial occupational threats that put their health at risk for injury even mortality, said Saki Rizwana, chairperson of OSHE Foundation (Bangladesh Occupational Safety Health and Environment Foundation).
Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all is one of the goals in SDGs. So, the authorities concerned, particularly the city corporations and municipalities, are increasing their initiatives in this area.
In Bangladesh, sanitation labour consists of both mechanical and manual sewage emptying workers, whether they are regular public employees or engaged privately. Majority homes and organisations choose private sweeper groups since they are readily accessible and charge less.
Occupational and operational safety is seriously lacking because of the manual nature of sewage cleaning, repair and maintenance. Emptiers enter the pit or septic tank to remove the hardened sludge. Therefore, conventional manual emptying by hand using ropes and buckets entails serious health and safety concerns for the emptiers.
The informal sweepers continue to experience marginalization, stigma, and suffer from financial insecurity as well as employment instability.
Speaking about the condition of sweepers as well as sanitary workers, Asad Uddin, a rights activist who works with OSHE Foundation; told Bangladesh Post that the sanitation workers’ safety and health are now even more at danger than Covid-19 pandemic
According to recent accounts, sanitation workers were pushed to perform longer shifts during the lockdown for little pay since the Covid-19 situation required the government to clear garbage more quickly and vigorously than usual.
Professor Dr. Hasnat Alamgir and Professor Dr. Mohammad Ismail Hossain, who are engaged in research on safety issue of sanitation workers; said that women workers are even at higher health and safety risk as they have unique maternity, nursing and child bearing related needs; also, being lower social-economic class and working alone in the community, they are vulnerable to abuse and harassment by their co-workers or other people.
Interviewing some sanitation workers who are between the age of 25 to 54 years, it is known that males are dominating this profession. Most of the female sanitation workers were aged between 35-44 years.
Around 90 per cent of sanitation workers never reached to the secondary education. Many children of the community don’t go to school because they are not accepted by the society as normal. “I was not a weak student at primary school level. However, I did not get admission in secondary level due to poverty in my family and different views of people in the society,” said Kiran Das, a sweeper who works at Tongi area in Gazipur city.
Most of the sanitation workers use to live in a small semi pucca or pucca house with almost five to ten family members. Most of them depend on the household water supply system or tube well for their daily need for water. Almost 40 per cent of them still use pit latrine shared by other families.
“Where we have 5 to 10 people live in a room, do we have any other option but to use pit latrines? There is no one to see our situation,” said Ramcharan, a sweeper who lives in Dhaka City Corporation’s Sweepers’ Colony situated near the Bangladesh Maidan in Old Dhaka.
There is no structured leave or termination process. Almost half of the sanitation workers, who are interviewed, are temporary workers and 38 per cent of them were casual and only 12 per cent among them are permanent. Most of them work for 6-8 hours a day. Almost 36 per cent workers have been in this profession for 6-10 years. Their average monthly income is Tk. 9000 to Tk. 13000. The sanitation workers are not satisfied with their financial situation.
Although the sanitation workers can take leave whenever they need, but there is no facility of getting paid leave or sick leave. The employers neither give any termination notice nor pay any compensation for sudden termination or death of the employee.
“Labor union plays very little role in the lives of the sanitation workers,” said Saki Rizwana of OSHE Foundation.
According to sources, about 600 sanitation workers are currently working in Sylhet City Corporation. The workers collect household wastes from ward level and keep it in a pit. Then the workers clean these pits and put the wastages in a secondary station from where the trucks collect these and dump these wastes in the final dumping site.
Gazipur city corporation has about 300 sanitation workers and all of them are temporary. All of them also work manually with shovels and buckets and ropes.
Interviewing some sanitation workers, it was confirmed that they have no paid leave or sick leave. They claimed to be poorly paid and no bonus is given; no compensation is provided after injury or death.
The sanitation workers reported of unhygienic and risky occupational environment. Most stated that protective equipment is provided only once a year or occasionally. However, they questioned about the quantity and mentioned that hot atmosphere was a barrier to use protective gear. No health and safety related trainings or meetings are provided.
Personal protective equipment such as gumboot, gloves, mask, apron are provided by the city corporation. But neither the quantity is enough, nor the workers are much interested in using them.
Most of the sanitation workers experience cuts, falls or slipping and fractures while working. Some of them also experience insect bite, heat and methane gas exposure.
The common illness found among the sanitation workers were muscle and joint problems, headache, breathlessness, skin problem and sore throat. They also mentioned about mental illness like eating disorders, stress, anxiety and sleeping disorders. Eyesight problems were mentioned from many workers. “I have been suffering from eyesight problems from last couple of years,” said Kiran Das, 40-year-old sweeper of Tongi area.
Some other sweepers said that they are suffering from muscle and joint problems, fever, cough, skin problems, lungs related problems.
According to filed visit, those sanitation workers who fell ill or got injured mostly go to the pharmacies and buy medicines on their own. A small portion goes to the government hospitals for treatment. They hardly get any support from their employers regarding treatment or any health or injury issue. They hardly get inspected by the health inspector.
The workers receive no special healthcare facilities, they must pay full payment for their treatment and there is no special discount for healthcare.
When asked, it was known that if a female worker is harassed, there is any place for filing complaint against sexual harassment.
However, there is no separate toilet for female workers at the workplace. Some women said that they are suffering from kidney disease. Doctors said this happens because of no access to toilet.
The female sanitation workers neither get any proper maternity leave nor any monetary benefit during this period from the employers.
When asked about facing social exclusion during availing health service, almost 33 per cent of the sanitation workers, who are interviewed, agreed. They said about discrimination in getting decent wage and formal jobs. They stated that they are ignored in the community; people see them as intoxicated; their children are unwanted in schools.
Lilimoni, a female sanitary worker, said that there are no special schools and they have no money to pay for education. They should have special school for their children.
Experts suggested for taking initiatives for improving occupational safety and health situation of the sanitation workers.
Professor Dr. Hasnat Alamgir and Professor Dr. Mohammad Ismail Hossain said that the income of sanitary workers is too low. Their income should be increased following the price hike of all essential commodities in recent years. They also suggested for providing subsidy in housing, utility bills, healthcare and children’s education of sanitary workers. They also suggested for structured employment and leave process.
Saki Rizwana of OSHE Foundation said that their termination is arbitrary. A contract letter and giving them severance notice and allowance may be helpful. The sanitary workers don’t have any say or bargaining power for their facilities and benefits. Having formal labour unions or a worker participation committee in the workplace recognized by their employers may help improve their working conditions.
The experts also said that there should be a dedicated health service facility in every municipality or city corporation which will provide free treatment and additional support for any medical condition to the sanitation workers.
Training programmes focusing on occupational safety and health are much needed for the sanitation workers. Regular meetings should be arranged among workers and employers in each municipality to listen to their difficulties and demands and take initiatives accordingly.
Advocate Kamruzzaman said that there are many laws to protect the rights. But it is important to implement these with proper monitoring. Amendment to labour law is also needed to cover the sanitation worker issue properly, he added.
Opportunities should be created to skill up the sanitation workers and their family members so that they can have extra income since their current wage is too low to maintain a decent quality life.