End Water Poverty and Public Services International urge governments to realise water and sanitation workers’ rights amid COVID-19 pandemic

Sweepers Are Superheroes
9 Apr 2020

For some people, working from home isn’t an option.

Every day water and sanitation workers risk their lives to earn a living. If the spread of coronavirus highlights the importance of safe water, sanitation and hygiene, it also exposes the callousness with which governments and private companies treat those who provide these vital public services.

We are repeatedly told that handwashing is the best way to protect ourselves from contracting COVID-19. Yet our ability to do so must not come at the expense of workers’ rights. In some countries, the majority of those on the frontline of the outbreak - cleaners, water supply workers and sanitation workers - are without proper safety equipment or basic handwashing facilities.

During the past two weeks, thousands of sanitation workers in Bangalore and Delhi have threatened to strike unless they are given clean masks, gloves and hand sanitisers. Recent research from Centre for Law and Justice reveals that protective gear is similarly scarce or non-mandatory in Pakistan. In 2019, 70 sanitation workers at the Lahore Waste Management Company died while doing their job. Employment insecurity is also prevalent: 98% of non-regular employees at the company fear they can lose their job at any time.

The mistreatment of water and sanitation workers is not unique to South Asia. Sanitation workers across the US are similarly denied protective gear, while cleaners at London’s Lewisham hospital - the first in the capital to treat a coronavirus patient - recently walked out after an outsourcing firm repeatedly failed to pay their wages.

From Lahore to London, the violation of workers’ rights is a pandemic that could significantly compromise global efforts to contain coronavirus. End Water Poverty, its members, and Public Services International urge governments worldwide to introduce emergency measures to realise people’s human rights to “just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment” by:

  • Introducing sick pay that covers workers’ essential costs (i.e. rent, food, water etc.)
  • Equipping workers with personal protection equipment.
  • Guaranteeing permanent contracts and universal income.

Once introduced, governments should enshrine these policies in national law to proactively protect workers - and society - against future public health risks.

Sani Baba, Public Services International’s regional secretary for Africa and Arab countries, said:

“Governments should actively involve trade unions, particularly unions representing workers who may be exposed to the virus while at work - including health workers and workers in health settings, emergency service workers, workers in airports, airlines and border control, hotel workers and workers in public spaces - in decision-making processes to determine the necessary steps to safeguard workplace safety and health. They should also provide transparent and timely information to workers and their unions about the number and location of infections as well as regular updates about the disease”

Mary Gill, Centre for Law and Justice, said:

“In Lahore, the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) has adopted the World Health Organisation’s ‘Safe Hands Challenge’ to show the importance of handwashing and hygiene. At the same time, its sanitation workers are left without protection and safety gear when descending into manholes to unclog them. We spoke to many sanitation workers in Lahore who felt they were not treated like humans because no one cares about their protection. While solid waste workers will likely come into direct contact with COVID-19, we cannot forget sewer workers or pit and septic tank emptiers who face even more deadly hazards doing their daily job. Most sanitation workers in Pakistan belong to marginalised groups who often attribute their callous treatment to their low social status. The coronavirus pandemic should compel WASA - and every institution across the globe who employs sanitation workers - to urgently adhere to the International Labour Organisation’s ‘Decent Work Agenda’.”

Al-hassan, End Water Poverty’s international coordinator, said:

“It is an injustice to treat people who provide life-saving public services as ‘low-skilled workers’. Sanitation workers are among the most marginalised and stigmatised members of society with little access to accurate information, legal protection or healthcare. Such inhuman treatment is a clear violation of their human rights. While many of us practice social distancing, they are socially excluded.”

This call is part of End Water Poverty’s #ClaimYourWaterRights campaign. Click here to sign our statement.