Occupational safety and health

Decent work for sanitation workers in South Asia under the spotlight

A recent workshop highlighted existing challenges and opportunities, as well as actions taken by the ILO, governments and social partners to address decent work deficits facing sanitation workers in South Asia.

Press release | 21 October 2021
A sewage worker in Hyderabad, working without any protective equipment
On 11-13 October, the ILO held a virtual workshop to discuss the challenges, opportunities and strategies to advance decent work among sanitation workers in South Asia, particularly those who clean toilets, empty tanks or pits, clean and unblock sewers and manholes, and who transport faecal matter and work at disposal and sewerage treatment sites. The workshop was part of the planned activities on global advocacy for health, safety and dignity of workers in sanitation – a global advocacy partnership between the ILO, SNV, WHO, World Bank and WaterAid.

The three-day workshop brought together 30 workers’, employers’, and government representatives from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan who shared country-specific challenges and government efforts to promote decent working conditions for sanitation workers. Participants highlighted the problem of “invisibility” of this work, attributing it to cultural notions associated with “untouchability” and the lack of ownership of the problem by governments, trade unions and employers. In addition, informality remains the norm rather than the exception in this type of work. In their opening remarks, Ms Alette Van Leur, Director-Sectoral Policies Department, called on unions and employers to “pay attention to the often-deplorable plight of sanitation workers” while Ms Dagmar Walter, Director of the ILO DWT-New Delhi, observed that despite the banning of manual scavenging in most South Asian countries, “manual cleaning of dry toilets, pit emptying, sewerage cleaning, and other related work persist”.

Sanitation workers lack access to any form of social security, alternative livelihoods, and personal protective equipment; they are excluded from the labour market and their work is unrecognised; they suffer social stigma and discrimination in their daily lives and lack basic labour rights. Some countries have enacted laws to protect their rights, but the application of these laws has been lacking. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed some light on challenges these front-line workers face.

The ILO emphasised the relevance of international labour instruments to the sector especially the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and OSH Conventions like the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), the Occupational Health Services Convention, 1985 (No. 161), and the Promotional Framework for OSH Convention, 2006 (No. 187). During the workshop, governments committed to take steps to mainstream sanitation work in policy formulation and labour laws while acknowledging that social partners could do more to improve the living conditions of sanitation workers. Reema Nanavaty, from the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India, was happy to see “everyone coming together to discuss the issues facing sanitation workers”.

Social partners agreed that this work should be formalised and professionalised, mechanised, with more investments in skills development, and greater social dialogue. On the final day, participants adopted a comprehensive set of strategies that would assist governments and social partners alike to create opportunities and address existing decent work deficits in the sector.

David Boys, Deputy Secretary of PSI, described the workshop as being “really good” and further stated that the “issues facing these [sanitation] workers are so compelling governments cannot just ignore”. Mariyam Shahida Mohamed, Vice President of the National Federation of Maldivian Employers, stated that “inclusion of all-party representation is salient to promote healthy conversations and reaching solutions within the tripartite dialogue; we appreciate the efforts made by ILO to create such a platform for us despite the challenges”.