Sanitation workers: the forgotten frontline workers of the COVID-19 pandemic

WaterAid/ DRIK/Habibul Haque

On World Toilet Day, a new study from WaterAid shows how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already horrendous conditions for sanitation workers across the world.

Sanitation workers provide an essential service: clearing and disposing of human waste. But they are often marginalised, undervalued and unsupported. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the awful working conditions many face – working longer hours without adequate personal protective equipment, suitable training, financial support or legal protection.

Sanitation workers include those who empty latrine pits and septic tanks, who clean toilets and sewers, operate pumping stations and treatment plants, as well as those who clear human waste manually, such as solid waste workers, cleaners and transporters.

Research carried out by WaterAid at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that many sanitation workers have worked on the frontline – throughout national lockdowns, in hospitals, 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  ...
WaterAid/ DRIK/Habibul Haque
Kona Nagmoni Lata cleans waste from a street in Dhaka City, Bangladesh.

This media briefing includes new case studies from Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Tanzania which highlight the effects of COVID-19 and the many other challenges faced by sanitation workers.

On World Toilet Day, the media briefing is a call for governments, local authorities, employers and the public to protect, support, respect and invest in sanitation workers. We encourage them to:

  • Ensure their safety by providing regular training and access to personal protective equipment, and by developing legislation, policies, guidelines, research and innovations.
  • Improve their working conditions through access to health insurance, social security and decent wages, as well as to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and financial support to help them cope with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Provide recognition of the workforce by prioritising their rights, making sure they are seen as key workers, and challenging deep-rooted inequalities and discrimination.
  • Support their empowerment through training and education opportunities and making sure sanitation workers are included in consultations with local authorities where appropriate.
  • Encouraging research to better understand the sanitation workforce, their challenges and safety requirements.

Further reading

Top image: Mohammad Delowar Hossain, 44, a self-employed septic tank cleaner working at a local community toilet.