In my own words: sanitation workers tell their own stories

5 min read
Six sanitation workers stand happily in front of the paintings they have created to tell their stories.
Image: WaterAid Cambodia

In Cambodia, many sanitation workers operate in dangerous conditions, lacking the protective equipment, knowledge and respect from citizens that they need to do their vital jobs safely. To help to change this, we supported workers to creatively tell their stories and gain the respect they deserve, alongside boosting their safety. Pharozin Pheng and Sokmeng You share how this innovative project unfolded.  

In Battambang city, sanitation workers and the Provincial Department of Public Work and Transportation (DPWT) play a critical role in ensuring safely managed sanitation, providing public sewage services to everyone in the city and keeping vital services going.  

The sanitation workers operate in confined, filthy spaces, often without enough knowledge about how to protect themselves from hazardous substances and other health and safety risks they encounter. Although support has been provided to sanitation workers in the past, the nature of their work remains dangerous to their health.  

On top of working in poor and dangerous conditions, sanitation workers are marginalised and subject to discrimination, because some citizens consider their occupation to be disgusting. They mostly face a lack of respect, support and collaboration from residents and local government, reporting having to contend with household waste thrown into sewers and being denied water to clean themselves with after completing work in people’s homes.

I wish that our people would learn to better manage their trash and not discriminate against us.

They are the ones who create the filth for us to clean up, yet they discriminate against us? Sometimes they won’t even give us water to wash our hands!
Sanitation worker Chea Sochet, 22, inside a sewer in Battambang Province. Chea is married with three children.

A creative way to promote sanitation workers’ rights to safe work 

As part of our vision of everyone, everywhere having access to clean water, a decent toilet and good hygiene, we promote the rights of sanitation workers to access safe and appropriate WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) at home and during their jobs, and their rights to safe work. They are key workers who should be treated with respect, recognition, appreciation and support from local government and citizens. This is the foundation for ending their stigmatisation and enabling safe and dignified working conditions.   

To promote sanitation workers’ rights as equals to other citizens, we ran an innovative arts project in Battambang, supported by Who Gives A Crap. We collaborated with a Cambodian photographer, Remissa Mak, and with arts group Phare Ponleu Selpark Organization to provide sanitation workers with new creative skills, supporting them to learn how to tell their own stories through photography, videography and painting. To help them continue their vital jobs during the project, Remissa travelled to train them on location alongside their work.

The projected culminated in an exhibition of the sanitation workers’ artworks at the Phare Ponleu Selpak arts school. Visitors including local government staff, students, NGOs, organisations of persons with disabilities and members of the public explored the creations and watched performances by circus artistes about the issues raised. The performances ended with a question and answer session to promote engagement and understanding.

New skills, improved safety and strengthened collaboration 

Through this project, the sanitation workers gained a chance to learn new artistic and technical storytelling skills, and an avenue through which to tell their own stories using different media. Their stories helped to raise public awareness of the challenges they face and strengthen public collaboration on sewage care and hygiene. The experience gave them more confidence to voice concerns around sanitation issues to local authorities and the public.  

Alongside supporting the sanitation workers to tell their stories, we collaborated with an expert WASH and wastewater organisation to provide training to them about health and safety, WASH and using personal protective equipment (PPE). The workers learned a lot about hand hygiene, using PPE, proper maintenance and how to protect themselves from physical and chemical hazards and transmission of bacteria and viruses. WaterAid Cambodia aims to continue to support the DPWT in developing Standard Operation Procedure guidelines to improve the city’s drainage system and protect sanitation workers from any risk, working with relevant partners and ministries.

Meet the project participants in the film below.

Co-hosting with government to ensure wider support 

Since this was the first project in which WaterAid Cambodia worked with sub-national authorities, the DPWT and Battambang provincial governor were involved to support implementation. The DPWT holds a central role in mobilising sanitation workers to monitor and resolve sewage problems on-site and on demand. We worked closely with the sewage system team to empower sanitation workers and influenced the DPWT to co-implement the project and host the exhibition, to ensure the stories have a positive impact and to avoid spreading negative images of the department.  

Chea used to work in Thailand, which has inspired his commitment to helping Cambodia to be as clean as other countries: "The desire to overcome this problem and raise awareness among our fellow citizens is what keeps me going in this work," he said. "Change is possible, starting with each of us. Just a little bit of tolerance, understanding and cooperation with the sanitation workers can help make the difference for the progress of our country."  

"My message to everyone is that no matter where you are, give some respect to the sanitation workers. Do not discriminate against them. We may look unclean, but we are the ones helping you stay clean."

Pharozin Pheng was WaterAid Cambodia's Equity and Inclusion Program Manager at the time of the project. Sokmeng You is Campaigns and Communications Coordinator at WaterAid Cambodia.

Top image: The six sanitation workers celebrating the completion of their paintings. Battambang, Cambodia.