Written by Samaira Aima, a grade 11 student
“Humanity has eyes that are sharp enough to see the poor who collect garbage from the dumps, but humanity does not have enough heart to help them!” ― Mehmet Murat Ildan
Who are sanitation workers?
Sanitation workers are the backbone of the waste management systems, but most of them work in inhuman conditions. They have no rights, no social security and work without basic safety gear.
Their work brings them in direct contact with human waste and toxic gases, and they are often at risk of contracting chronic diseases. From cleaning streets to lifting, dumping garbage, handling medical waste, biohazards, and emptying septic tanks, sanitation workers have been performing their duties without adequate safety equipment.
These workers live mostly in informal settlements or in slums with a high population density. Mostly, they do not have access to toilets and hence resort to community / public toilets or, in the worst-case scenario, are obligated to defecate in the open. India is home to over five million sanitation workers who pick up the garbage and clean sewers and public toilets.
Sanitation Workers- At the Bottom of the Frontline, against the COVID-19 Pandemic
Sanitation workers are on the frontline of defence against the spread of COVID-19 as they are managing the waste generated in cities while exposing themselves to disease and infection in the process.
In India, sanitation workers already face several health and safety risks, financial challenges, and social stigma due to the nature of their work and caste-based discrimination. The COVID-19 pandemic has further added to their challenges and vulnerability.
Sanitation workers and waste-pickers face risk from the handling of unmarked waste coming from homes where Covid-19 patients are quarantined. There is no segregation of waste and used masks, gloves and tissues have to be removed manually by them, thereby increasing their risk of infection.
They are exposed to the infection, but unlike medical professionals, they do not possess the knowledge about how to take precautions.
Workers are not getting quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE’s) like masks, gloves, caps, and gumboots and have not been given the required information to handle the disease. With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic showing no signs of abating, manual scavengers and sanitation workers are at an increased risk of exposure.
The work of sanitation workers requires them to move across different locations, interact with many people and work in high-risk settings including health care facilities, quarantine centers and containment zones. They face a high risk of getting infected due to a lack of proper PPEs and safety measures at work.
Getting infected with COVID-19 can lead to an added layer of stigma and discrimination. This in turn can lead to loss of livelihood and difficulties in availing proper health care services. Moreover, since many of them live in informal settlements, there is also grave concern about transmission in their communities.
The sudden imposition of lockdowns across the country has had several direct and indirect impacts on the working conditions of sanitation workers. Many workers returned to their native places, which led to the availability of a smaller workforce. Some workers had to work for longer hours than usual, ranging from additional 2-6 hours per day, due to added tasks such as disinfection. Some hospital workers were being required to work for longer shifts, even up to 30 hours.
GENDER INEQUALITIES: Additional challenges for female sanitation workers during COVID 19
Women were disproportionately impacted, not only by adverse shocks to their income and livelihood, but were also less prepared to cope due to lower coverage under employment benefits and other support measures. Given the pandemic situation, it was not possible for many women to take their children along to work due to COVID-19 risk and lockdown restrictions. Women faced additional challenges during menstruation and had difficulties in accessing sanitation facilities as public toilets remained closed during the lockdown.
Guidelines for sanitation workers
According to the guidelines laid down by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the following efforts should be made to protect sanitation workers:
• Workers should be trained on symptoms of COVID-19 and take precautions.
• Workers should adhere to basic hygiene practices. This includes frequent washing of hands with soap and water or use of alcohol-based sanitiser, especially after handling human waste. They should avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands.
• Workers should not eat, drink, chew gum, tobacco, or smoke while handling human waste.
• Workers should maintain at least a meter distance from each other and the general public
• Workers should wear appropriate PPE, including rubber gloves, reusable masks, gumboots, head band, wrist band, and safety jackets.
• Workers should be provided with special protective clothing in case of biomedical waste handling from quarantine centres, isolation wards, and containment zones.
• Work clothing (reusable PPE and regular clothing) should be decontaminated daily. Tools used by the workers should be washed with soap and water and disinfected.
• All work should be done by following standard operating procedures(SOP’s) by properly trained sanitation workers and using appropriate tools and equipment.
Sanitation workers and their livelihoods need to be protected
• The Government must acknowledge the role of sanitation workers as essential and include them in the protection and insurance schemes for frontline workers. Their livelihood needs to be promoted and their health needs to be protected.
• The government should provide protective equipment like masks, boots, and gloves, as well as sanitation products (soap and sanitisers).
• Food security and some support for income need to be provided to sanitation workers considering that they live in some of the poorest slums of cities.
• The Government should work to ensure informal sanitation workers have access to regular health check-ups and essential medicines.
With lockdowns, the informal nature of waste picking, and the volatile recycling market, joblessness is likely to be the reality for many belonging to this vulnerable population. It is now more imperative than ever that the Government should protect the work of sanitation workers and waste-pickers so that they can continue to serve communities.
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