Sanitation work is often perilous, but how can conditions for workers improve if it remains hidden?

4 min read
Three men preparing to discharge a vacuum tanker into a pumping station sump in Tiruchirappalli, India.
Image: Andy Peal

Sanitation workers are a vital workforce, key to Sustainable Development Goal 6, and yet they are often denied their rights to safe work. But how can working conditions be improved, if authorities know nothing about them? Andy Peal and Chilala Haankuku Kapulu introduce a new methodology for quantifying and profiling sanitation workers.

Sanitation workers are a hidden labour force

Sanitation workers provide a valuable service to society, but they are often an invisible labour force, working every day in environments that endanger their lives. As we work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), meeting targets with new and improved sanitation services, the number of sanitation workers is going to increase – they are essential to achieving SDG 6 on water and sanitation. To meet their human rights to safe work, this increase must be matched by improvements in their working conditions.

But often municipal authorities (and others responsible for sanitation services) don’t even know how many workers operate in their cities, let alone the different types, their modes of employment, legal status, the conditions they work in or how many will be needed in the future. The problem is compounded by the fact that many sanitation workers are only engaged in the informal sector, where their activities always remain unrecorded; reliable data are therefore often scarce.

Without data, how can those responsible for sanitation service delivery be sure what needs improving? How can they draft policies and plans, and implement change? It’s a tricky conundrum.

A man transferring emptied faecal sludge into barrels for transport to the treatment plant in Lira, Uganda.
Mukisa transferring emptied faecal sludge into barrels for transport to the treatment plant in Lira, Uganda.
Image: Andy Peal

How to quantify and profile sanitation workers at city level

What could help is our new methodology for city-level quantification and profiling of sanitation workers. Developed with WaterAid and bringing together views of sanitation experts and a review of recent literature, the methodology includes a sanitation workers assessment tool, which focuses on five key dimensions: demographics, physical security, financial security, legal security and dignity of sanitation workers.

Within each dimension are critical questions on gender, ethnicity, working conditions, types of hazard faced, safety equipment used, levels of pay, hours worked, contractual status, employment rights and level of discrimination and stigmatisation.

Assessments must be adaptable to context

But assessing these dimensions poses a challenge, due to the diversity of worker types (from public toilet cleaners, pit emptiers and sludge tanker drivers, to sewer cleaners and treatment plant operators) and the variability of contexts across cities. This points towards the need to have an adaptable assessment process that could be tailored to suit the situation in any given city, much like the shit flow diagram (SFD) process, in which this approach is used to assess service delivery of sanitation systems and networks.

We therefore propose different levels of assessment depending on the resources available, the location of the team and data availability. These range from a light-touch assessment that can be prepared remotely with secondary data, to a full assessment using both secondary and primary data. The light-touch assessment provides a credible overview, which is useful for gaining a first understanding of the situation. However, because much of the data will be from secondary sources, any findings would come with a comparatively low level of confidence. By contrast, the findings from a full assessment, which would be more detailed and take longer to carry out, could come with a higher level of confidence.

Incorporating sanitation worker data on an SFD could be beneficial

We also recognise that the SFD graphic is a powerful tool for advocacy, and that incorporating sanitation worker data on a city’s SFD could be beneficial. The report therefore shows some initial ideas for an SFD plus sanitation workers diagram and new sanitation worker infographics, such as the scorecard shown below. These explicitly recognise the importance of disaggregating by multiple dimensions of worker type, sub-type and the four key dimensions, to highlight where interventions are most required. This level of detail is lacking in so many places, but, if it can be obtained, analysed and presented clearly in this way, local decision makers could be in a position to start thinking about how to make changes.

An example of a sanitation worker quantification and profiling scorecard for a city.
Example of a sanitation worker quantification and profiling scorecard for a city. Please see p10 of the report.
Image: Andy Peal and Chilala Haankuku Kapulu

Please use, document and share the findings of these tools

We call on local municipalities and sanitation actors – governments, NGOs and funding agencies – to adopt, use and test these tools. More importantly, we ask that they then document and share their findings widely. This will raise the profile of sanitation workers and could help facilitate their inclusion in urban sanitation research, design, planning and implementation – which is essential if their status and wellbeing are to improve.

Andy Peal is an independent WASH consultant based in the UK. Chilala Haankuku Kapulu is also an independent WASH consultant based in the UK and is from Zambia.

Top image: Aakaar, Balan and Chandresh preparing to discharge a vacuum tanker into a pumping station sump in Tiruchirappalli, India.