Improving the lives of sanitation workers

15 January 2020
Juma Ng'ombo, 52, sanitation worker, standing next to a pit latrine after emptying it, Temeke, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, June, 2019.
Image: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

This World Toilet Day, we raised awareness of the issues sanitation workers face around the world, through the release of a new report.

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.

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, often violating their dignity and human rights.

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 and ends when waste is disposed of or reused. Their jobs can include cleaning toilets, emptying pits and septic tanks, cleaning sewers and manholes and operating pumping stations and treatment plants.

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. There are no global statistics available, but in India alone, it is estimated that three sanitation workers die every five days. Countless more suffer repeated infections and injury, and have their lives cut short by the everyday risks of the job.

In Dar es Salaam, around 70% of the city is made up of unplanned settlements, where communities usually have poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as liquid and solid waste services. It is estimated that 10% of the city is connected to the sewerage system, which means the majority of the city are relying on other mechanisms for emptying their latrines. Those who do this work as known as ‘frogmen’ and they are responsible for manually empty latrines, often without the correct safety equipment, which is unhygienic and dangerous.

At WaterAid Tanzania, we have been working closely with sanitation entrepreneurs to create legal enterprises, and ensure they are able to carry the work safely, and dispose of the waste hygienically. This involves supplying the workers with the necessary equipment, such as boots, gloves, overalls and masks, and using technologies, such as the gulper, which are used to empty pit latrines. Another technology we have used for waste is the Decentralised Wastewater Treatment System (DEWAT), which recycles fecal sludge into fertiliser and biogas. This ensures that sanitation workers are able to dispose of the waste safely. We have also been working with microfinance institutions to support sanitation businesses to be able to access loans.


In Tanzania, we held a press conference at our offices in Dar es Salaam, and shared the report with the media, receiving national-wide coverage. During the engagement, the media got to hear from Mathius Milinga, the Director of UMAWA - a sanitation business in Kigamboni, and Julius Chisengo, a sanitation worker. 

Additionally, we took part in the Sanitation Week in Dodoma, organised by the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children. We presented our research project from Babati, which looks at how to embed sanitation and hygiene in urban planning, as well as our work on public private partnerships. Our exhibition table shared key materials, including a model of the Decentralised Wastewater Treatment System (DEWAT), and SATO pans.