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

19 November 2021
Burkina Faso, India, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Nepal, Toilets
Vishal Jeenwal (26), a street sweeper, cleans himself with a water hose after working as cleaner at a factory in Geetanjali colony. Loni, Ghaziabad, India. 28 August 2021.
Image: WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee

New York, NYSanitation workers: The forgotten frontline workers in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. New studies from WaterAid reveal COVID-19 has exacerbated already horrendous conditions for sanitation workers around the world

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Download the full report here

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 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 garbage 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 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.

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  ...
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.
Kona Nagmoni Lata, 34, a street sweeper from Bangladesh

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, the Chief Evacuator, scoops human excreta into a bucket to be then transferred into another container for Aminu Usiani to pour in to a drum that has been loaded on to a truck. Tudun Bojuwa area, Fagge Local government area of Kano state ...
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.
Iliyasu Abbas, 50, a pit latrine and septic tank emptier in Nigeria

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 marginalised 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. 

Vishal Jeenwal (26), a street sweeper, sweeps the floor of a factory where he works as a contractual cleaner in Geetanjali colony. Loni, Ghaziabad, India. 28 August 2021.
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.
Vishal Jeenwal, 26, a street sweeper in India

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. 

Kamlesh Taank, 55, latrine cleaner, manually clears away faecal waste in Loni, Ghaziabad, India, August 2021.
Higher castes don’t want to come near people like me. You could say I’ve always been socially distanced from my employers.
Kamlesh Taank, 55, cleaner of dry latrines in India

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.

It’s vital governments, local authorities, employers and the general 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.
Dr Andrés Hueso González, Senior Policy Analyst at WaterAid



  • 771 million people in the world – one in ten – do not have clean water close to home.
  • Two billion people in the world – almost one in four – do not have a decent toilet of their own.
  • Around 310,000 children under five die every year from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's around 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes. 
  • Every $2 invested in water and toilets returns an average of $8 in increased productivity.
  • $50 can help run a handwashing campaign to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

WaterAid is an international nonprofit working in 30+ countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 28.1 million people with clean water and 28.8 million people with decent toilets. 

For the full media briefing please read:

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

For the studies conducted in South Asia:

For the study in Nigeria:

For the study in Burkina Faso:

The Burden of Inheritance: a 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:

Emily Haile, Director of Communications, [email protected]

You can also call our global, 24-hour press line at +44 (0)7887 521 552 or email [email protected].



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