Safeguarding the rights of sanitation workers

5 min read
Sanitation worker manually evacuating a faecal sludge
Image: WaterAid/Nelson Owochio

The Project Global Advocacy for Health, Safety, and Dignity of Workers in Sanitation recognises that sanitation workers provide an essential public service to reach Sustainable Development Goal 6.2, but often at the cost of their dignity, safety, health, and living conditions. Sanitation workers provide the service of clearing and disposing of human waste. But they are often marginalised, undervalued, and unsupported. 

WaterAid commissioned a rapid assessment of sanitation workers in Kano State, Nigeria to understand the working conditions of sanitation workers and identify opportunities to support them. The study shows that sanitation workers, despite their fundamental contribution to the sanitation value chain, face various challenges including the use of old tools and vehicles, and occupational hazards that can lead to illnesses, injuries, or even death. In addition, the current enabling environment does not support sanitation workers, with a weak institutional arrangement and legal framework and access to only three designated faecal sludge disposal sites.

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 because of their job. Many have worked on the frontline of the pandemic, throughout national lockdowns, in hospitals and quarantine centres and the heart of communities with poor access to safe water, decent sanitation and good hygiene facilities.

Sanitation workers earn wages that don’t measure up to the kind of work challenges they encounter. In Kano State Nigeria, a typical mechanical faecal sludge emptying company earns a service charge of about ₦10,000($24.24) - ₦15,000($36.36) and an estimated daily income of about ₦20,000($48.48) - ₦100,000($242.41). A Manual latrine emptier on the other hand earns a service charge of ₦1,000($2.42) - ₦3,000(7.27) and an estimated daily income of ₦5,000($12.12) and ₦50,000($121.20) working together with co-workers. These rates may peak during the rainy season and drop during the dry season.

In Bangladesh, 48% of interviewed workers experienced a reduction in their incomes, they feared losing their jobs during the lockdown as they were faced with the challenge of being able to fund their basic needs.

Work environments that pose a threat to the health and safety of the workers should be paid utmost attention. Diseases such as Cholera and Hepatitis can be contacted through waste products such as faecal matter and can be controlled using fortified Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). A key informant interview carried out by WaterAid on some sanitation workers revealed the lack of proper PPE and kits during faecal sludge evacuation on work sites. Auwalu Rabi’u, 34 years old sanitation worker who empties latrines manually reported that he doesn’t make use of any PPE.

‘The equipment we use includes pick-up truck drums, buckets, hoe/digger, shovel, rope and small scooping container. We don’t use PPE of any kind because we cannot afford to buy them. We believe God will protect.’

In other findings, 1/3 of sanitation workers interviewed in Nepal did not receive any PPE from their employers and 80% of interviewed sanitation workers in Burkina Faso thought the PPE were not able to prevent injuries from occurring.

Sanitation workers are at high risk of having accidents and sustaining injuries while working, which may result in deep cuts from sharp objects like nails and pieces of glass, loss of limbs and even death especially when PPE are not in use.

After a long day’s work, keeping clean should be the utmost priority for any sanitation worker. This can only be accomplished when there is easy access to WASH facilities at worksites and offices. It will be an imbalance to have the environment clean and the cleaners in an unhygienic state. Kona Nagmoni Lata, a street sweeper in Bangladesh explained to WaterAid during an interview, how often she came across faeces while sweeping and how she would wipe them off using a cloth and wait till she gets to the office before she can wash her hands.

Sanitation workers don’t only face stigmatization but also harassment. Auwalu Rabi’u explained how he gets harassed on the road by Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) and Road Safety Officials, and that he often comes across clients that refuse to pay after services have been rendered. Iliyasu Abbas, a 50-year-old manual sanitation worker in Kano state explained how he has been treated with disregard by both adults and children due to the nature of his job.

The way forward

Sanitation workers provide an essential service because sanitation is critical to public health. They must not be ignored, undervalued, or stigmatised. WaterAid is calling on governments, local authorities, multi-lateral organisations, employers, and the general public to protect, respect, support and invest in sanitation workers.

Reform policies, regulations, guidelines, and the institutional arrangement: This includes the development of a legal framework relating to Faecal Sludge Management and the legal rights of sanitation workers, as well as occupational and health hazards and other benefits in line with the International Labour Organization (ILO). This also includes the establishment of an administration of sanitation affairs responsible for regulation (e.g., Kano Metropolis Urban Sanitation Board (KAMUSAB).

Construct, operate and maintain Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTPs): FSTPs should focus on resource recovery to turn the waste into wealth as those modelled in Dakar (Senegal), Kumasi (Ghana), Durban (South Africa) and Kampala (Uganda) amongst others.

Provide support to sanitation workers: This includes financial tools such as loans and grants, facilitating linkages with financial institutions, and the provision of tools/equipment, vehicles, and office and parking space.

Revisit the health and safety guidelines for sanitation workers: This includes ensuring the guidelines are aligned with the International Labour Organization standards and informing sanitation workers on the guidelines to ensure compliance. This also includes ensuring sanitation workers are all registered with a Primary Healthcare Facility nearest to their office/station for a subsidised medical check-up and treatment and ensuring the use of PPE.

Register and license the sanitation workers’ organisations: This includes renaming and restructuring the existing associations, officially registering the organisations, and developing legally bounded principles. A suggestion is the Kano Association of Manual Pit Emptiers (KAMPE) for the ‘Gidan Kowa Da Akwai’ and Kano Association of Vacuum Trucks Owners (KAVTO) for the mechanical sanitation workers.

Develop and implement a behaviour change campaign on the rights and dignity of sanitation workers: This campaign would target the general public, health workers, NGOs, CBOs, and religious organisations to improve their understanding of sanitation workers and their rights. This would include seminars, awareness campaigns (e.g., media outlets), and capacity development activities.

Establish partnerships with various stakeholders: This includes increasing the government’s commitment to sanitation to attract investors to engage in Public-Private Partnerships (PPP). There also needs to be engagement with civil society groups (NGOs, CBOs), academics, professionals, etc.