The hidden world of sanitation workers

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Sanitation, Equality, inclusion and human rights
Image: WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad/ Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti

Ensuring our contact with human waste ends when we leave the toilet is one of the most important jobs in society, yet around the world sanitation workers are mostly unseen and unappreciated. This World Toilet Day, which has the theme of ‘Leaving no one behind’, together with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), we are highlighting the plight of sanitation workers as one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

Sanitation workers range from public or private employees with proper equipment, benefits and legal protection, to some of the most marginalised, poor and discriminated against people in the world. Despite providing an essential public service, an uncounted number of workers around the world work in hazardous and stigmatising conditions that violate their dignity and basic human rights.

Few developing countries have guidelines to protect sanitation workers, leaving them exposed to a litany of health and safety issues. There are no global statistics, but in India alone between 2017 and late 2018 one sanitation worker died every five days, according to official estimates. Other sources estimate three times as many deaths. Countless more suffer repeated infections and injury, and have their lives cut short by the daily risks of the job.

Access to decent toilets that properly manage waste is a human right and forms part of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. We will need many more sanitation workers across the world if we are to achieve this ambitious target. Safely managed sanitation must go hand-in-hand with ensuring safe and dignified working environments for the people who run and maintain the sanitation services that protect our health.

In the most extensive global report on the wellbeing of sanitation workers to date, we shed light on this hugely neglected issue. Our brief brings together findings from our report – The health, safety and dignity of sanitation workers – with stories of workers from around the world, to help identify ways to improve their wellbeing.