After a long day emptying septic tanks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Olivier Batoro emerged all covered in filth. With no equipment to protect himself from the toxic gases, Olivier was dizzy and light-headed as he pulled himself up. Minutes earlier, his ungloved hands retrieved a used syringe covered in sludge from a latrine.
“Our work contributes to society” Olivier said. “But people do not recognize our contribution.”
Sanitation workers -- the men and women who empty pits and septic tanks, clean toilets, sewers and manholes, and operate pumping stations and treatment plants -- provide a fundamental public service, yet often face extreme health hazards and safety risks on the job. In many developing countries, they are informal workers with no legal protections or rights. With a lack of visibility in society, they can be stigmatized, marginalized and ignored.
To draw attention to this neglected issue, the International Labour Organization, WaterAid, the World Health Organization and the World Bank have come together to author the report, Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers – An Initial Assessment. The four organizations released the report just ahead of World Toilet Day, a day about inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis in which 4.2 billion people still live without safely managed sanitation and 673 million among them still practice open defecation.
As the first global effort to undertake advocacy regarding the conditions of sanitation workers in developing countries, the joint report presents case studies to help identify ways to improve their lives and wellbeing.
Health and Safety Hazards
Exposure to toxic gases that collect in septic tanks and sewers can cause chronic coughing, fatigue, dizziness, and shortness of breath. At very high concentrations, the ammonia, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide contained in the tanks and the pipes where they work can make sanitation workers lose consciousness or die. Furthermore, the persistent contact of the workers to the myriad disease-causing organisms in our fecal waste can have long term debilitating effects on their health, which can also lead to death.
Despite the risks and the dire conditions of their work, sanitation workers continue to do their job. “You say that the work is dirty, but there is no dirty work, only dirty problems,” says Inoussa Ouedraogo, another manual emptier in Ouagadougou.
Uttam Kumar, of Khulna, Bangladesh, has been working as a septic tank emptier since he was 21. For him, protecting sanitation workers’ rights means a better future for both himself and his children.
“I want my rights and a better living environment,” he says. “How can I be expected to improve my situation otherwise? How can my daughter be expected to have a better life than mine?”
Uttam is not alone. Sanitation workers range from permanent public or private employees with health benefits, pensions, and clear legal protections at one end of the spectrum, to some of the most marginalized, poor, and abused members of society who take on low-grade, labor intensive and dangerous work at the other end. We find that, in most developing country contexts, the latter situation unfortunately prevails. The work of informal sanitation workers is financially precarious, with poor pay and few benefits. They are often subject to weak legal protection, missing or weak standard operating procedures, and weak enforcement and oversight of laws and policies protecting their rights and their health.