Forced to clean excreta “…by accident of their birth in a particular caste”

Day four of the Sanitation Workers Forum 2021

Workers with Vacutag. Drawing © Amita Bhakta, 2021

By Amita Bhakta, Mariam Zaqout, Sally Cawood, Jennifer Barr, Maisie-Rose Byrne, Purva Dewoolkar,   Alix Lerebours, and Reychel Sanchez

The fourth and final day of the Sanitation Workers Forum was an opportunity for reflection and discussion. The day focused on participation in workshops to establish how labour rights can be effectively connected to sanitation, and how those working to support sanitation workers to realise their rights can learn lessons from other sectors.

Connecting Labour Rights and Sanitation Workshop

Sally Cawood opened the session which looked at how labour rights can be linked to sanitation. Reflecting on experiences from South Asia, Carlos Carrión-Crespo of the International Labour Organisation outlined some of the challenges of addressing the rights of sanitation workers.  Caste-based discrimination and hostility towards workers from low castes remains a prevalent issue. Carlos described how in Bangladesh, low-caste untouchable Hindus who attempt to move away from sanitation work are met with opposition, with severe negative impacts on sanitation workers trying to start a tea stall or auto-rickshaw service which often end in failure due to being boycotted by the higher castes. Sanitation workers seldom receive water when they ask for it, and often face humiliating treatment when they are self-employed. The interface between caste and religion has wider impacts on the ability of sanitation workers to fully realise their labour rights. Drawing on findings from a study by the International Labour Organisation,  stark differences were highlights in the educational background of workers from different countries, where a significant proportion of workers in Sri Lanka had been educated to high school level, whereas in Afghanistan, people engaged in sanitation work and mostly employed by the private sector had scarcely been to school, highlighting the diverse paths which can lead into the various forms of sanitation labour. Across the region, sanitation workers continue to face challenges with access to any form of social security, whether they are employed by the public or private sector. Adhering and ratifying conventions on aspects such as the minimum wage, occupational health and safety, and child labour are key actions to be taken to move forward to ensure sanitation workers can address their labour rights through a transition from viewing their work as informal to a formal part of the economy.

David Kapya of the International Labour Organisation shared some of the results from a South Asia sub-regional workshop on Decent Work for Sanitation Workers involving 30 representatives involving 15 sanitation worker representatives, 8 employer representatives, 7 representatives from the governments of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and the Maldives, and the Initiative for Sanitation Workers (International Labour Organisation, SNV, WaterAid and World Bank). The workshop aimed to strengthen synergies and generate ideas to mobilise work towards improving the working conditions of sanitation workers and their participation in social dialogue.  Several key lessons were learned from the  discussions. Governments need to take ownership of and recognise sanitation as a public service. Greater advocacy is needed for governments and employers to provide adequate PPE and uniforms to workers as part of processes to formalise and professionalise sanitation work. Lessons can be taken from Senegal, where socially degrading names have been replaced by those that are more valorising, transforming waste workers into ‘environmental technicians’. Building on this, the workshop identified the possibility to appoint sanitation workers as ambassadors of sustainability and environmental protection and creating opportunities for them to speak in schools and public places. Through these lessons, it becomes clear that the formalisation of sanitation work has the potential for diverse impacts on the lives of workers. 

David Boys of Public Services International Utilities emphasised the importance of unions in collectively bargaining for sanitation workers’ rights, through proper agreements between workers and employers and the enforcement of laws. Unions need counterparts such as governments to be able to bargain with on the other side of the table, without whom the negotiation of rights for informal workers becomes almost impossible. David reflected on the role of unions in defending labour rights for sanitation workers through collective bargaining agreements, challenging the notion that unions only go on strike. Describing the work of unions, David said “when you see us on the streets, something has failed”. Engaging in political processes is key to determining the terms and conditions of union members. Privatisation of sanitation services leads to a maximisation of profits being prioritised over the welfare of workers, and prohibiting access to key services for the poorest neighbourhoods, adding that “the system has slipped too far away from families, away from communities, away from what the planet needs.” . A challenge to consider moving forward is the ability to get large organisations such as the International Labour Organisation to pay attention to the rights of workers who make up a small percentage of the global workforce. 

The second half of the workshop focussed on sanitation workers in the Indian context. Dr. Sally Cawood introduced Harsh Mander of the Centre for Equity Studies. Harsh gave an introduction to a documentary, Death by Drowning in a Sewer – A socio-legal autopsy, reminding the audience of the fact that sanitation workers have some of the worst labour and social security rights in India, forced into the sanitation workforce “by accident of their birth in a particular caste”. Harsh described the way in which women from this caste are forced to clean human excreta with their hands and the lack of safety for workers cleaning septic tanks and sewers.  The harrowing documentary painted a picture of the devastating reality of lives being lost to manual scavenging in India and the wider impacts on workers’ families, despite it being an illegal practice.

Learning from Other Sectors Workshop

The second half of the final day of the Sanitation Workers Forum provided participants with the opportunity to consider how learnings from other sectors can be applied to research and advocacy in sanitation work, in a workshop introduced by Dr. Andrés Hueso (WaterAid UK). 

Sonia Dias from Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) provided lessons from Brazil on the health impacts of COVID-19 among waste pickers, and how to build  resilience from action and research. At the onset of the pandemic, WIEGO worked to  produce and share information on COVID-19 safety protocols, share tools and policy recommendations for advocacy efforts and influence policy to meet the demands of sanitation workers. WIEGO also found ways to track the implementation and impact of policies, produce COVID-19 safety guidelines for sanitation workers and conducted a survey on the impacts of the pandemic on sanitation workers, including health and access to COVID-19 vaccination. At the start of the pandemic, cases took hold and COVID-19 spread among sanitation workers, reducing rates of recycling and income for waste workers in Brazil. In more recent times, almost 80% of activities occurring before the pandemic have resumed once again and gross revenue has increased due to a rise in the price of materials. Sonia provided a range of key lessons to be learned from the pandemic. Creating campaigns to support self-employed and cooperatives of waste pickers, training and education on facing the pandemic, and advocating to prioritise the vaccination of waste pickers are among key actions which need to be taken. WIEGO has found that COVID-19 vaccination rates are low among waste pickers in Brazil due to inequalities in vaccination overall, and lack of awareness and hesitancy to be vaccinated. Sonia stated that is crucial to take into account the culture of the country when planning de-stigmatisation and awareness about sanitation workers issues (e.g employing parades in Brazil).  Sonia talked also about how to foster the dialogue with  and among sanitation workers (e.g via social media, WhatsApp) to try to take advantage of the culture and arts of the country. 

Christy Braham from WIEGO focused on the themes of informality, vulnerability and health to outline lessons to be learned from the impacts of the pandemic on informal economy workers. Emphasising that WIEGO recognises waste pickers as key workers and drawing on recent studies by WIEGO, a key lesson is the need for inclusive public health strategies which include adequate social security measures for sanitation workers, and to support and resource mutual aid groups. The work by WIEGO identified a need to advocate further for occupational health and safety measures to include waste pickers, and to place greater importance on better understanding their needs. 

Awareness raising and advocacy were the central themes of a presentation by Lakshmi Narayan, the Co-Founder of  Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) Waste Pickers Union in India. Lakshmi explained how It was important for the union to raise awareness about how important the job of waste picking is, among the public and among waste pickers who do not know this. Lakshmi gave insights into how the union was able to advocate for municipal identity cards for waste pickers, symbolised by the action of creating and tying friendship bracelets made from waste around the municipal building. The union was further empowered in this process and with the police being on board, was able to demand accountability and advocate for their own rights themselves; a piece of paper gave the much needed authority for their collective bargaining. After waste picking had been privatised in the municipality, Lakshmi outlined how the union advocated for having cooperatives to run this instead of having corporates involved that might ignore the current waste pickers. The waste pickers piloted this, and proved that they have the capacity to have  professional arrangements for their cooperative business.

Similar lessons were shared by Nalini Shekar of the Hasiru Dala organisation, as mechanisms  to offer social protection to waste pickers in Bangalore. Hasiru Dala added further elements of waste segregation and door-to-door collection as part of their programme to highlight the quality services that can be offered by entrepreneurial waste pickers. Having identified that households found waste segregation a challenging task, the organisation tried to offer training for households to ensure that they will demand the service of waste pickers.

Movements to improve the working condition of waste pickers have also been growing in Tanzania. Isack Rugemalila from Ushindi Group Mazingira reflected on how a lack of formal recognition of waste workers by the Tanzanian government, despite their significant contributions, has led to frequent punishment, a lack of support from the community and government, a lack of places to dump their waste and unequal access to opportunities to provide a service. An association of self-organised waste pickers, Ushindi Group Mazingira, was formed early in the year 2000 to address these, and other issues such as working in hazardous conditions, lack of PPE, lack of space to process materials, drug use, HIV prevalence, and one-sided business negotiations to improve the lives of waste workers in the longer term. The first of its kind in Tanzania, the initiative aimed to give waste pickers  a platform to have public and government recognition and to conduct their activities in a formal way. Key successes from the initiative included giving identity cards to entrepreneurial waste pickers to formalise their activities, continued education and advocacy on recycling and environmental sustainability, and hosting the first international conference on recycling and waste management in Tanzania in 2019.

Closing remarks and next steps

The final day of the Sanitation Workers Forum tied together the threads of debate witnessed over four lively, interactive and engaging days, which in multiple ways highlighted the importance of ensuring that as we strive towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, sanitation workers are fully included in efforts to leave no one behind. In the last session of the forum, members of the organising committee, led by Dr Sally Cawood, shared their reflections on lessons learned over the course of the conference, the  importance of which was raised by a member of the audience, who rightly asked whether the forum was just a space for intellectuals to make some noise, or whether there was concrete action to be taken! 

Maisie-Rose Byrne, a committee member, thanked everyone who participated in the forum, from those with lived experiences of sanitation work to observers and researchers, the Initiative for Sanitation Workers and the interpreters for the conference. Maisie drew on the number of key themes emerging from the forum, including: representation and self-organisation of sanitation workers; the role of international organisations; intersectionality of caste, gender and marginality; historical roots, colonialism and post-colonial influences; the challenges of COVID-19; contextual differences; health and safety; sensitive use of imagery; building a research agenda and knowledge gaps; labour rights; and the ability to learn from other sectors. 

An open discussion then enabled participants to share their reflections. A key takeaway was around the considering the complexity of working ‘with/for/on’ sanitation workers and understanding what sanitation work does to sanitation workers and vice versa, and effective engagement to give sanitation workers a safe space. The forum itself was viewed as a valuable  repository for anyone who wants to engage in the topic in the future. Reflections were shared on the need to pay greater attention to individual needs of sanitation workers and aspect of intersectionality. The forum has raised more questions to explore further and opened up knowledge gaps and issues of representation to consider moving forward. A practical question remains around how to connect sanitation workers to researchers to enable them to set the research agenda. The course of the conference has awakened participants to the fact that there is so much yet to be learned, it is almost like a full time job, reflecting the importance of the topic.  The daily blogs on this website were seen  as a highlight and as a useful record for the proceedings of the conference. The complexity of sanitation work was vivid; on the one hand, the informal nature of the work could be oppressive, but at the same time could also be empowering. Conversations going forward need to be local, sensitive and context specific for action to be concrete and powerful, and for voices to be shared on the global stage. 

Dr Sally Cawood formally closed the forum, thanking participants for the discussions, and the committee, and reminded participants that videos can be watched on the Whova conference platform.