During the pandemic sanitation workers have been praised as ‘COVID warriors’ in some nations but WaterAid has found many of these workers in developing countries have been forgotten, underpaid, unprotected and left to fend for themselves.

Research carried out by WaterAid at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic on the safety and wellbeing of those who clear and dispose of faecal waste, reveals hazardous working conditions, a dangerous lack of PPE, poor training and legal protection, as well as loss of income for millions.


A WaterAid film: The burden of inheritance

WaterAid’s film team have shed light on the practise of manual scavenging. The short film is an intimate film which tells the story of a marginalised community trapped in a cycle of poverty within India’s entrenched caste system and sheds light on this illegal practise which requires those forced into it to clean, carry and dispose of human excreta by hand.

Most shockingly, manual scavengers belong overwhelmingly to a single community: the Valmiki caste, regarded as the very bottom of the intricate system that still governs who most Indians marry, what food they eat – and who unclogs their sewers. To date no one has ever been convicted for employing scavenger labour.

With unparalleled access, The Burden of Inheritance, gives a voice and visibility to an excluded and silenced community; a compelling, cinematic film that’s as unsettling and disturbing as it is hopeful and relevant.

Trailer | The Burden of Inheritance | WaterAid


Sanitation workers include people who clean toilets and sewers, empty latrine pits and septic tanks and operate pumping stations and treatment plants as well as those who clear faecal waste manually, sweep rubbish and transport faecal sludge. WaterAid’s findings also include solid waste workers and cleaners.

Despite providing a vital service ensuring human waste is cleared, stored and disposed of safely, WaterAid found sanitation workers are often marginalised, stigmatised and shunned as a result of their job. Many have worked on the frontline of the pandemic, throughout national lockdowns, in hospitals and quarantine centres and in the heart of communities with poor access to safe water, decent sanitation and good hygiene facilities.


Findings from South Asia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria show that:

Sanitation worker with injured hand

40% of sanitation workers interviewed in India and 39% interviewed in Bangladesh lacked any hand washing facilities at work.

Sanitation worker

1/3 of sanitation workers interviewed in Nepal did not receive any PPE from their employers.


Sanitation worker cleaning latrine

80% of interviewed sanitation workers in Burkina Faso thought the PPE they were given was unsuitable and even made accidents more likely.

Sanitation worker in Bangladesh

48% of sanitation workers interviewed in Bangladesh saw their incomes reduced during the pandemic.


people don't have a safely managed sanitation service at home.

WHO/UNICEF (2021) Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2020. Joint Monitoring Programme. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines

WHO/UNICEF (2021) Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2020. Joint Monitoring Programme. Geneva: World Health Organisation.