December 29, 2019

By Xari Jalil


In June 2017, Irfan Masih, a sanitary supervisor from Umerkot went down the sewer only to choke on poisonous gases, and faint. Doctors at the Umerkot Civil Hospital refused to touch his sludge-ridden body. As a result, Masih died.

In Pakistan’s social and economic fabric, sanitation workers are in the worst of circumstances. They are not recognized as formal labour, and the pay scale is meagre – barely making ends meet – for a job that carries serious health concerns.

“Our salaries aren’t enough to pay off bills,” lamented Caleb Patras, a sanitary worker. “I have four children, my mother is widowed. Our problems are never ending.”

Caleb has accumulated a debt of Rs. 30,000 which he is finding it nearly impossible to pay back on the scant wage he receives for one of the toughest jobs on the planet. In Pakistan, it is even tougher – in addition to being regarded as outcasts of society, sanitary workers must also risk life and limb to manually clear out sewers. And because it is not regarded as formalized labour, there is no concept of specialized equipment and safety regulations in this line of work.

“They don’t give us the right equipment. Yet we are still made to work without it,” explained Kailash Masih, a manual cleaner. Kailash receives Rs. 24,000 for a job that involves him having to wait for toxic gases that can choke and kill him to dissipate before he is made to wade in excrement without any protective gear.

Ghulam Masih related of his brush with death, when he fell several feet down a sewer and had to lie in the filth and noxious gases before he was pulled out. There was nothing keeping him from slipping into the open gutter – just two men who had to lower him by grabbing his limbs.

Sanitation work is riddled with gross violations of human dignity. To address this, former lawmaker Mary James Gill has come up with a “Sweepers Are Superheroes” campaign. Taking note of the safety regulations of sanitation systems in the US, she hopes to regulate safety in sanitary work and alter national attitudes through campaigns. Policymakers like Hina Pervez Butt, have welcomed this effort and are poised to address the concerns of sanitary workers in a resolution to be presented in the National Assembly.

In the lives of sanitary workers, a ray of hope does manage to shine through as it did in the case of Fazlan Bibi, who had worked as a sweeper for 30 hard years of her life. It was a back breaking job, but she did not waver in hopes she could save her children from such a live by giving them an education. Her labour bore fruit when her son, Zeeshan, took up the post of magistrate after clearing his CSS examinations.

“She isn’t just my superhero, she is an exemplar for others who can’t read and write, and don’t have any formal education,” Zeeshan said. “I believe that literacy is not what’s important – it’s being a visionary that’s important. And my mother is the visionary leader of my life. I am her product, her achievement.”

Fazlan Bibi now lives a life of the kind of comfort that is unheard of for a sanitary worker to achieve. She cannot be happier.

“A sanitary worker is worthy of respect in our society,” Zeeshan iterated. “Any profession should be worthy of respect.”