Sanitation workers: The forgotten frontline workers in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic

November 19, 2021
Kona Nagmoni Lata (34) is cleaning waste from a street in Dhaka City. As a street sweeper, she usually performs her duties without standard safety kits. Although she received some insufficient hygiene resources from the authorities she had to buy the  ...
Image: WaterAid/ DRIK/ Habibul Haque

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 fecal waste, reveals hazardous working conditions, a dangerous lack of PPE, poor training, and legal protection, as well as loss of income for millions.

Ahead of World Toilet Day on the 19th of November, findings from South Asia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria show that:

  • 40% of sanitation workers interviewed in India and 39% interviewed in Bangladesh lacked any handwashing facilities at work.
  • 1/3 of sanitation workers interviewed in Nepal did not receive any PPE from their employers.
  • 80% of interviewed sanitation workers in Burkina Faso thought the PPE they were given was unsuitable and even made accidents more likely.
  • More than 1/3 of workers in Bangladesh feared losing their jobs if they stopped working during the lockdown.
  • Around half of the respondents (66% in Bangladesh; 44% in India; 50% in Pakistan; 61% in Nepal) reported challenges in meeting their daily expenses
  • 48% of sanitation workers interviewed in Bangladesh saw their incomes reduced during the pandemic.

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 fecal waste manually, sweep rubbish, and transport fecal 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 marginalized, stigmatized, and shunned because of their job. Many have worked on the frontline of the pandemic, throughout national lockdowns, in hospitals and quarantine centers and in the heart of communities with poor access to safe water, decent sanitation, and good hygiene facilities.

Kona Nagmoni Lata, 34, a street sweeper from Bangladesh, said:

“Sometimes, I come into contact with human feces in my work, but I can only wipe it off with a cloth. There are no handwashing stations where I work so I have to wait to go back to the office to wash my hands.”

Many sanitation workers told WaterAid they felt forced to go to work during lockdown even if they felt ill, for fear of losing their jobs. In India, 23% of sanitation workers interviewed had to work for longer hours during the pandemic, taking on an additional two to six hours per day while some hospital sanitation workers were even asked to work up to 30 hours continuously without additional payment.

Even without the threat of the virus, sanitation work is hazardous. The workforce risk being exposed to a wide variety of health hazards and disease and can often come into direct contact with human waste. Sharp objects in pit latrines and poor construction can cause injury and infection while toxic gases can make workers lose consciousness or even kill them.

Iliyasu Abbas, 50, a pit latrine and septic tank emptier in Nigeria, said:

“The major risks we face during our work are harassment, injury, loss of a limb or our lives. About two years ago, while emptying a pit at night, a concrete block from the toilet structure broke off and fell on my head.”

In some countries, sanitation workers face widespread and systemic discrimination. WaterAid spoke to one young man in India from a family involved in manual scavenging (which involves dealing with human excreta directly, either from dry latrines, open drains, sewers, or railway tracks) who has been unable to find alternative employment due to stigma surrounding his caste, despite having a degree in Social Sciences from Delhi University.

Vishal Jeenwal, 26, a street sweeper, belonging to Valmiki community, one of the most marginalized Dalit caste groups in India, tried to find office work but told WaterAid that as soon as his employers discovered his caste, his job became untenable.  He said:

“They said that someone like me could never succeed in any other job.  I tried several other jobs, but finally, out of desperation, I went back to doing what I’d seen my family do all their lives – cleaning.”

Kamlesh Taank, 55, has been cleaning dry latrines in a town near the Indian capital, Delhi, for the past 35 years. She used to cover her nose and mouth because she found the smell so repulsive but didn't use any extra protective clothing or worry about social distancing during the pandemic. She said:

“Higher castes don’t want to come near people like me. You could say I’ve always been socially distanced from my employers.” 

WaterAid’s film team have shed light on the practice of manual scavenging in ‘The Burden of Inheritance’ - a short film telling the story of a marginalized community in India trapped in a cycle of poverty.  The film will premiere on the streaming platform WaterBear on World Toilet Day, giving visibility and a voice to an excluded and silenced section of society.

Nicole Hurtubuse, WaterAid Canada Chief Executive Officer, said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital role sanitation workers play in our communities – but it has also revealed the vulnerability of this essential workforce that is often undervalued and overlooked. It’s unacceptable that so many sanitation workers operate without the support and safeguards they need. 

“WASH services are critical to maintaining public health and will be fundamental to surviving and recovering from the pandemic, and future pandemics - but without sanitation workers, these services will not function. It’s important we invest and support the workforce, not just for the sake of public health but also for the economy - to ensure universal access to decent sanitation and a better future for all.”

Dr Andrés Hueso González, Senior Policy Analyst at WaterAid, said:

“It’s vital governments, local authorities, employers and the public take action to support sanitation workers so they can do their job safely, with the dignity and recognition they deserve. These key workers should be protected through legislation, policies and guidelines that ensure workers have appropriate PPE, regular training, a decent wage and access to health insurance and social security. Sanitation workers also need to be recognized, respected, and supported by institutions and by individual citizens. We all have a role to play in tackling and removing the deep-rooted discrimination they have endured for far too long.”



Download photos and case studies here

Download the full report here

For the full media briefing please read: Sanitation Workers: the forgotten frontline heroes in the fight against COVID-19

Download Case study photos and B-roll of sanitation workers in Nigeria available to download 

Visit here for the studies conducted in South Asia

For the study in Nigeria, visit here

For the study in Burkina Faso, visit here

The Burden of Inheritance:  WaterAid film looking at a community involved in manual scavenging in India, trailer can be found here: TRAILER | The Burden of Inheritance | WaterAid

The full film (15 mins) will be available and streamed on WaterBear from World Toilet Day, 19th November from here: 

WaterBear is the first interactive streaming platform dedicated to the future of our planet - providing access to award-winning and inspirational content that empowers members to dive deeper, learn more and take action.

For more information, please contact:

Onome Oraka, Head of Communications and Brand, WaterAid Canada at [email protected]

Notes to Editors: 


With many workers undocumented and defecation still a huge taboo in many societies, tackling the issues surrounding the sanitation workforce is challenging. WaterAid is increasing awareness and raising support for sanitation workers, advocating for governments to recognize and protect the rights of the workforce. More research is also being conducted to better understand how to help improve working conditions and empower these vital but forgotten frontline workers.

WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organization works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 28 million people with clean water and nearly 29 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAidCanada on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram

  • 771 million people in the world – one in ten – do not have clean water close to home.[1]
  • 1.7 billion people in the world – more than one in five – do not have a decent toilet of their own.[2]
  • Around 290,000 children under five die every year from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's more than 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes.[3]
  • Every £1 invested in water and toilets returns an average of £4 in increased productivity.[4]
  • Just £15 can provide one person with clean water.[5]

  1. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines
  2.  WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines
  3.  Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)
  4. World Health organization (2012) Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage