The hidden world of sanitation workers: New report by WaterAid exposing grim working conditions of sanitation workers

14 November 2019
Human rights
Sanitation Workers
Image: WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad

Millions of sanitation workers in India are forced to work in conditions that endanger their health and lives, according to the most extensive global study to date on the issue, which is released today. 

Despite providing an essential public service, these workers are often the most marginalised, poor and discriminated against members of society who carry out their jobs with no equipment, protection or legal rights that often violates their dignity and human rights. 

The report is the most extensive exploration to date on the plight of sanitation workers in the developing world. It is jointly authored by the International Labour Organisation, WaterAid, World Bank, and World Health Organization to raise awareness of the de-humanising working conditions and to push for change. Sanitation workers are the men and women who work at any part of the long sanitation chain that begins when we go to the toilet or leave other wastes out and ends when waste is disposed of or reused. Despite being involved in one of the most important jobs in society, these sanitation workers remain mostly unseen and unappreciated. Their jobs can include but not limited to, cleaning toilets and public places, segregating or managing different kinds of waste, emptying toilet pits and septic tanks, cleaning and maintaining sewers and manholes and operating pumping stations and treatment plants.

A study conducted by Dalberg Associates1 in 2018, an estimated 5 million sanitation workers in various urban locations across India. They were categorised into nine broad types of sanitation workers identified along the sanitation value chain, including those engaged in cleaning sewers, cleaning latrines, faecal sludge handling, railway cleaning, work in waste treatment plants, community and public toilet cleaning, school toilet cleaning, sweeping and drain cleaning, and domestic work.

These workers often come into direct contact with human waste, working with no equipment or protection, which exposes them to a wide variety of health hazards and disease. 

Toxic gases, such as ammonia, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide in septic tanks and sewers can cause workers to lose consciousness or die. It is estimated that three sanitation workers die every five days in India. Countless more suffer repeated infections and injury and have their lives cut short by the everyday risks of the job. Family members of the sanitation workers do struggle too, both due to the stigma of the work and due to the life losses or health consequences in their families.

Meenadevi, 58, cleans dry latrines in Dehri-on-sone, Bihar. Her mother-in-law also cleaned dry latrines, and died doing the job.

“Initially, I used to feel nauseated. I wasn’t ready and felt ashamed to work because of the stigma attached to it. But now I’m used to the foul smells. Poverty leaves you with no option. With the amount of discrimination we face, what else can we do to feed our stomach? Give us another job and we will leave this one immediately.”

Raman VR, Head of Policy at WaterAid India said:

“Sanitation workers carry out one of the most essential public service in society yet they are forced to work in conditions that puts their health, lives and dignity at risk. The harshest realities are that even today, the age old stigmatised caste system remains to be the key determinant of the fate of these workers. As a result, communities mainly belonging to the lowest rungs of caste system in India are compelled to continue performing these tasks, which are not just hazardous and stigmatising but also highly underpaid. Governments at different levels should identify and deploy new and improved measures and assistive technologies for ensuring sanitation and cleanliness in our urban and rural areas, ensuring decent work, safety, health, dignity and equity of the workers involved. Facilitating current sanitation workers and their families to own and run most of the technological alternatives can lead them to a better life as well.”

To mark World Toilet Day this year, WaterAid India advocates for the need of stringent measures to abolish all possible direct human interface with any faecal matter. We also need to explore and deploy technology-centred alternatives to reduce the risks associated with sanitation work.

To this end, WaterAid has released:

[1]Dalberg Associates. The Sanitation Workers Project. 


For more information, please contact:

Pragya Gupta, Media & Communications Coordinator,


Notes to Editors:

WaterAid India

WaterAid is an international not-for-profit, determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. Only by tackling these three essentials, in ways that last, can people change their lives for good. Working in India since 1986, WaterAid has successfully implemented water, sanitation, and hygiene projects, extending benefits to some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAidIndia on Twitter, or visit us on Facebook at