“If you ask who emptied the pit, no one will show their hands”

Day two of the Sanitation Workers Forum 2021

Female Safai Karmachari. Drawing © Amita Bhakta, 2021

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

The second day of the Sanitation Workers Forum considered the challenges and opportunities in sanitation work posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and placed significant emphasis on understanding the role of identity (intersections of gender, caste, age) for individual sanitation workers and the complexities behind this. It also included important contributions from sanitation workers and representatives themselves, and explored different aspects of Occupational Health and Safety.

Thematic Session 4: Gender, intersectionality and sanitation work

This session highlighted the often invisibilized realities of female sanitation workers in Madagascar, Côte d’Ivoire, Sénégal and India. The session, co-chaired by Alix Lerebours and Nelly Leblond, started with two pre-recorded contributions from the OVERDUE project team, including Angèle Koué (GEPALEF, Côte d’Ivoire) and Jeannine Bola Ramarokoto (SiMIRALENTA, Madagascar) and then Ndeye Penda Diouf (OGDF, Sénégal). These contributions highlighted the central role that women play in the sanitation sector, but the barriers that they face, including facing discrimination, and having their work unrecognised and unpaid. Abhilaasha Nagarajan then reflected on the invisibility of women sanitation workers in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, which arises from gender stereotypes, played out through a ‘one size fits all’ approach through the design of equipment that they find difficult to operate and the lack of consideration of women’s bodies in the way in which personal protective equipment is predominantly tailored for men. Abhilaasha’s talk put a clear spotlight on the precarity of women who have no proof of their employment as sanitation workers in the informal sector. Routes to access schemes such as widow pensions, for the wives of workers lost to manual scavenging, exist but are challenging to navigate, often due to a lack of awareness that they even exist. Some areas of progress were notes in the inclusion of transgender workers in self help groups to manage community toilets. In Trichy, intersections of gender, age, disability and caste prevail  among sanitation workers but are all too often difficult to navigate due to sensitivities around these issues. As Abhilaasha noted, ‘women are beyond users’ and should be recognised as part of the sanitation chain. 

The lack of recognition of women as part of the service chain was amplified further in a presentation by Jeannine Bola Ramarokoto and Angèle Koue. In  Côte d’Ivoire and Madagascar, women are unable to wear the uniform provided for them because it, along with PPE,  is designed for men, and prevents them from going into the field. Jeannine highlighted that the burden of childcare and household duties  for women remains and deserves greater attention  when considering  the welfare of women sanitation workers. Discussions reflected on the need for greater depth of study on the regional differences around taboos in relation to sanitation alongside the different needs of men, women and people with disabilities working along the sanitation service chain. The importance of designing and building infrastructure and technology appropriately to safeguard the rights of sanitation workers was raised by session co-chair, Nelly Leblond.

Thematic Session 5: Challenges and opportunities arising from COVID-19

This session engaged with the challenges and opportunities in the times of the COVID -19 pandemic bringing insights from Ghana, Bangladesh and India. This session was co-chaired by Mariam Zaqout and Purva Dewoolkar. The session started with Dr Solomie Gebrezgabher’s insightful study on vacuum truck operators in Ghana. Solomie shared that mobile payments have increased vis a vis cash payments as the operators want to mininise touch. Also, COVID-19 lockdown guidelines have changed from region to region resulting in varied adaptations. This was followed by Mahbub Ul Alam, who spoke about occupational Health and safety interventions to the Waste and Sanitation Workers in Bangladesh. Moving on to India, Tripti Singh shared about their study which spanned across ten cities in India. She talked about multiple sporadic COVID-19 initiatives taken up by the Indian government and highlighted that almost all of them focused on help/ relief after the death of the worker.  None of the initiatives focused on providing on the job safety and relief. The fourth speaker in the session was Siddharth K J who is union leader himself, shared his experiences in implementing the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013. Foregrounding the complexity of fragmented bureaucratic mechanisms in India, Siddharth made pertinent points of difficulties in translations of policies into realities. The last speaker of the session was Ms Laila Khongthaw. Laila presented the tool they had designed for preparing a PPE kit budget and also shared that their tool ​​is adopted by the local government of Devprayag in Uttarakhand. In conclusion, the question and answer covered reflections from speakers on initiatives being transitory changes during COVID-19 or if they were going to stay for long.

Keynote Address  by Ibra Sow and Alidou Bandé

In this keynote address, Ibra Sow (President of the Pan-African Association of Sanitation Actors, PASA, Sénégal) and Alidou Bandé (President of ABASE Manual Pit Emptiers Association, Burkina Faso) reflected on their key priorities for sanitation workers at a countrywide, regional and global level. Ibra began with a call to act to enable billions of men and women to live decently and to protect essential sanitary workers, many of whom lack access to basic safety equipment and tools, and face different health hazards and even face death (recalling the sad incident of two workers who died in a cesspool). Ibra recognised that formal manual and mechanical pit emptier associations have the ability to lobby governments and other stakeholders collectively for better employment terms, access to equipment and recognition at national and international platforms. Professional associations are also key in negotiating for equipment such as trucks, formalising access to markets and finance and to communicating effectively with the state and other actors across the region and internationally (for example, via learning exchanges). Ibra reflected on the importance of turning human waste into ‘brown gold’ that has marketable value, and which can be the foundation of a successful business – “the sludge that we empty, we know it is money, but how do we add value to it?”. He also reflected on the importance of training sanitary workers and capacity building to improve safety. Ibra called on all participants at the forum to “take manual emptiers into account and ask them about their needs”’. He reflected that it is not always easy to reach manual emptiers, who often remain as hidden informal workers – “If you ask who emptied the pit, no one will show their hands” – manual emptiers in some contexts don’t admit to doing their job but policies are needed to support them.

Alidou Bandé, who is a manual pit emptier, then took the floor. Alidou shared his journey into manual emptying, reflecting that he was once a photographer, but entered into this work to improve the environment in his local community. He realised that the manual emptiers were working in very poor conditions, often at night, and faced a lot of challenges. So, Alidou began a group, and gradually accumulated members – this became the association. Alidou reflected on the realities for manual emptiers “who are the most marginalised, but we cannot do without them” and are “often left to their own fate”, without any support for healthcare or in times of crisis. He shared that these workers are essential and present because trucks cannot reach all areas, and sanitary infrastructure (especially safe dumping sites) remains poor. Alidou also reflected on the importance of the association to raise visibility at local and international platforms, and to gaining recognition as essential workers. However, Alidou also noted the challenges for manual emptiers who still receive very limited support for equipment, healthcare, training and finance, though Alidou has successfully rolled out vaccinations for some workers via the association itself. He noted that sanitary infrastructure is never designed with manual emptiers in mind, and that he is not sure local authorities listen to his warnings about the situation on the ground – “every rainy season the facilities (pits, tanks) collapse”. He said that interventions are bound to fail if you do not involve the manual emptiers. Alidou also recognised the potential market value of waste – “The sludge we empty is money” but that manual emptiers need proper training to understand how to transform sludge into sellable products such as animal feed and empower workers to look at income generation. Alidou and ABASE are also looking to set up insurance groups, yet access to finance is a challenge. 

The discussion centred on a range of different topics, from trans-national learning and networking, to the challenges for formalisation. Both speakers were also asked to reflect on the gendered nature of manual and mechanical work, and if there are any female members of the associations. Ibra said that they there are, but very few women are involved in the emptying work itself, but more administrative roles. One important exception is the female truck driver Mariama Seck, who is an inspiration for many in Sénégal – she went through tough training and “today, she’s on wheels!”. Alidou said they have four women in the association, but they empty household waste, and do not do the manual emptying work. Both agreed more can be done to attract women into the sector. In his closing remarks, Alidou reminded participants to, “whatever we do, start off with the question – why are these emptiers still marginalised”? Not only manual emptiers, but all sanitary workers – they deserve more respect for their work, professionalisation and support going forward.

Early Career Researcher workshop

The second day also provided the opportunity for early career researchers to meet in a workshop and to reflect on effective research methods and processes to explore the realities of sanitation workers. Discussions drew upon the importance of different sources of knowledge and grey literature beyond the academic journals, the use of creative methods to engage with workers and the challenges of navigating gatekeepers for research relating to sanitation work. Speakers also reflected on the intersecting forms of privilege and power, being an insider or outsider (based on who we are and where we are based) that emerge in research.

Sanitation Worker Representation: Who Speaks for Whom, and How? A Conversation

In an open ‘conversation’ on representation, Dr. Sally Cawood revisited the remarks of Bezwada Wilson in the opening plenary on the challenges of addressing the priorities of sanitation workers without further deepening existing inequalities. “Representation” of workers through self-representation, facilitated representation (for example, via NGO or donor supported CBOs or associations), and representation of workers by development agencies in global or national advocacy which are sensitive to intersectionality, are crucial aspects to consider going forward.

A pre-recorded video featuring Bezwada Wilson (Safai Karmachari Andolan, India) emphasised that progress for the rights of minorities with the sanitation worker community such as women, will take a long time to be achieved. Wilson’s core message was one not of providing more PPE or gloves, but one of taking decisive action to prioritise human rights and the elimination of manual scavenging, and learning from other countries around the world who are already doing this. Another pre-recorded video was played of Alidou Bandé (the day’s live keynote speaker) reflecting on the role of ABASE the manual emptiers association (for further details see above). One final video series was played from the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitaton Programme, with the voices and experiences of female and transgender sanitary workers in Trichy. The ‘ghettoisation’ of informal sanitation workers, forced to live together in certain parts of the city of Trichy, was outlined by Priscilla Sugantha who emphasised spatial aspects around their visibility and invisibility in the city. When the Indian Institute for Human Settlements set out to work on this topic, this invisibility was reflected in the lack of database on informal workers, which was a priority when the project began. Despite this spatial ‘invisibility’, it was highlighted through a series of videos (and the participatory needs assessment conducted in the project) that informal workers are autonomous, agentive people who want to politically organise. The videos were powerful and did not fall into the too-common trap of dwelling on the workers’ lives as being miserable or filthy or dangerous. The inherent political nature of intervening in workers’ lives was vivid through her discussions around getting ID cards for workers, along with a lack of consideration for identity through the absence of de-addiction centres for women. What was clear from Priscilla’s talk was that helping sanitation workers to organise and unionise, locally and across India, is key to ensuring that they are recognised by the government, attain the respect and dignity for the work that they do and realise their rights to basic needs such as housing, which all too often is too difficult to achieve. As Peter Khamisi  of the Septage Emptiers Association of Kenya affiliated to Pan African Sanitation Actors summarised, “without data, we cannot plan”. Peter also emphasised the importance of organising workers via associations, building linkages with local ministries (including the Ministry of Labour) – “talking to [and with] each other, not at each other” – and focusing on worker mental health.

The talks within the session reflected a range of diversity in approaches and interventions being made to support sanitation workers. ‘Whole-person’ interventions considered the wider lives of workers in the context of their identity, dignity, access to housing and other life opportunities, whereas other interventions focussed only on their rights ‘just’ while they are working. Providing full support to sanitation worker communities around the world involves going far beyond issues of safety, pay, and respect, often because as one participant Zakir Hossain of Nagorik Uddyog put it, some workers are “so traumatised they don’t even bargain”.  Moving forward, it became clear from discussions that addressing the deaths of workers such as Dalits emptying the pit latrines of South Asia was not simply a matter of a lack of equipment or a lack of knowledge, but because society does not value their lives – “they are dying because the value of their lives is non-existent”. This has only been compounded further by the fact that the majority of latrines built in recent years in India are single pit, perpetuating the challenges to eliminate manual scavenging further. Questions were also raised as to why there are few dalit truck drivers or business owners, and what can be done to challenge these inequalities. There were also reflections on what role INGOs can play in supporting self-organisation and representation of sanitation workers across the world, in solidarity. The question always remain how to reach the most marginalised workers in global and national forums, such as this one? One final speaker also urged caution and shared concern about the funding landscape with some very dominant and powerful funding agencies setting the agenda and normalising certain approaches, that may not well suit particular contexts and social-political complexities.

Thematic  Session 6: Occupational Health and Safety, Policies, Laws & Regulations

This insightful thematic session explored interconnections between Occupational Health & Safety (OHS), policies and regulations in sanitation work. The first presentation by Froggi VanRiper reflected on the effectiveness of Container Based Sanitation solutions (urine diverting composting toilets) in improving working conditions and sanitation access in Haiti. Latrines in informal areas often need hazardous manual excavation and often flood. The EkoLakay container based service, on the contrary, involves workers with access to PPE and significantly reduces exposure to hazards. Froggi also reiterated that a Citywide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) approach is key to achieve economies of scale and ensure improved sanitation, and livelihoods, for all. The next presenter, Bruce Rutayisire reflected on the role of a social enterprise (Pit Vidura) in improving sanitation worker safety in Rwanda. Pit Vidura provides training for workers to safely deliver community based services and use equipment such as transportable pumps. Workers involved in the initiative have access to protective equipment, a steady income and work regular hours because of the professionalisation of their work. Pippa Scott then shared a review, completed for the World Bank as part of the Initiative for Sanitation Workers, on technologies and equipment for sanitation worker safety. Pippa referred to the ‘Hierarchy of Controls’ of which, notably, PPE (though important) was the least effective hazard control measure (with a range of other important controls preceding this, including elimination and substitution). Pippa referred to different technologies used to eliminate ‘confined space entry’ (the cause of much suffering for sanitation workers), including for example PuPu pumps and Bandicoots. However, whilst different technologies exist, they are not always easy to access on the market and many are at prototype stage. Pippa said that physical hazards are often overlooked and manual carrying and heat stress creates difficult conditions, as are welfare facilities e.g. toilets and showers to remove clothes and reduce risk of transmitting disease. Rose Renouf then shared an overview of policies and regulations for sanitation workers. Rose noted that identifying OHS tools in the present is key to making them better in the future, and that these tools, as well as laws, policies, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and standards form the basis of an enabling environment for sanitation worker safety. Rose introduced a range of key principles going forward, including ‘do no harm’ (not skipping over or ignoring manual emptiers by going straight to mechanical, but responding to their needs) and improving current practices. Rose also called for us to account for intersectionality and acknowledge diversity within and between different categories of sanitation work, and who does the work (relating to earlier comments about PPE often being designed and produced for men alone). Rose also called for a multi stakeholder approach to design, for us to focus on outcomes for workers rather than inputs and that we need to account for enforcement in the design of standards and policies. In the final presentation, Gati Wambura discussed the Mtaa Fresh programme in Kenya, led by Sanergy. Key lessons were the need for sensitisation of use of PPE for manual pit emptiers, working with organisations to identify appropriate PPE and greater community sensitisation about the importance of manual pit emptiers Gati reflected how professionalisation of manual emptiers could a route for equity, and provide scope for inclusion of women in this job. Responding to a question about livelihoods and technology (and some of the contradictions between), Gati remarked that we could “kill two birds with one stone!” and make manual pit emptying safer but also look at income generation options. The lively Q&A covered topics from formalisation of emptiers and the role of private enterprises, to looking beyond technology to the deeper social and political structures that mean hazardous and degrading forms of sanitation work persist.

Key takeaways of the second day

Wider factors need to be considered when addressing the rights of sanitation workers. Intersectionality, forms of representation and appropriate health and safety measures can begin to pave a way forward for this to be achieved.