A sanitation worker (or sanitary worker) is a person responsible for cleaning, maintaining, operating, or emptying the equipment or technology at any step of the sanitation chain.:2 This is the definition used in the narrower sense within the WASH sector. More broadly speaking, sanitation workers may also be involved in cleaning streets, parks, public spaces, sewers, stormwater drains and public toilets. Another definition is: "The moment an individual’s waste is outsourced to another, it becomes sanitation work.":4
It is important to safeguard the dignity and health of sanitation workers. Without sanitation workers, the Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6.2 ("safely managed sanitation for all") cannot be achieved.
A report by World Bank, International Labour Organization, WaterAid and WHO from 2019 defines "sanitation workers" to include toilet cleaners and caretakers in domestic, public, and institutional settings; those who empty pits from pit latrines and vaults of septic tanks and other fecal sludge handlers; those who clean sewers and manholes; and those who work at sewage treatment plants and fecal sludge treatment plants and disposal sites.:2
In the United States however, some organisations use the term exclusively for municipal solid waste collectors. A famous example of "sanitation worker" referring to waste collectors is the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968, supported by Martin Luther King Jr., which brought together both waste collectors and sewerage maintenance workers.
Another definition is: "The moment an individual’s waste is outsourced to another, it becomes sanitation work.":4
In some countries, human excrement is still collected from certain types of toilet (such as bucket toilets and pit latrines) without mechanical equipment and without personal protective equipment. These workers are "scooping out feces from ‘dry’ latrines and overflowing pits". They are usually working in the informal labour sector. They are subjected to social stigma for their work in manually emptying septic tanks and pit latrines.
The challenges faced by sanitation workers can be categorized as follows: occupational and environmental health and safety, legal and institutional issues, financial insecurity, and social issues.:7
In many developing countries, sanitation workers often have to work with weak legal protection, missing or weak standard operating procedures, weak law enforcement and few policies protecting their rights and health.:x
The safety of sanitation workers is influenced by::47
- Design and construction of the toilet or other piece of sanitation infrastructure
- Pressure by the customer
- Pressure by the employer
- Materials and equipment available to do the job
Environmental health issues include:
- diseases related to contact with the excreta
- injuries related to the physical effort of extracting and transporting the waste, including falls from height
- injuries related to cuts from non-fecal waste (e.g. glass or needles) disposed of down the toilet
- the dangers of working in confined spaces, including lack of oxygen
In developing countries, low-grade, unskilled sanitation workers often face social stigma and discrimination.:10 This is especially true when sanitation is linked to a caste-based structure and often allocated to castes perceived to be lower in the caste hierarchy, such as in India and Bangladesh. This stigma can result in intergenerational discrimination, where children of sanitation workers often struggle to escape the vicious cycle of limited opportunities and sanitation work..:10
There can be implicit or explicit discrimination, which hinders workers’ social inclusion, their opportunities to shift careers, and social mobility. Furthermore, alcoholism and drug addiction to evade the working conditions are common among some sanitation workers in developing countries.:10
- In Zambia, German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH has been working on projects to "make sanitation workers more visible and create the recognition and respect that they so rightfully deserve."
In India the term manual scavengers is used historically for a subsection of sanitation workers. The official definition in Indian law is "manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit". The practice has officially been banned since 1993 but still continues.
Sanitation workers in India who clean streets may also be called "street sweepers".
“Sanitation workers” can be used as a translation for the Hindi word "safai karamcharis". This includes "manual scavengers", but also people who work as sweepers, are employed to clean streets and open spaces, collect solid waste, and clean open drains and public toilets. Another commonly used term is "Pourakarmikas" which includes manual scavengers, sewer workers, sanitation workers.
An estimate in 2018 put the number of "sanitation workers" in India at 5 million, and 50% of them being women.
In Haiti, sanitation workers in the informal sector are called bayakou, which comes from Haitian Creole. . The capital Port-au-Prince is one of the largest cities in the world without a sewer system.
Types of sanitation work
In European history the terms "nightsoil collectors" or "nightmen" and gong farmers were used. (The current term for the safe collection of human waste is fecal sludge management.) Towns with sanitation systems based on pail closets (bucket toilets in outhouses) relied on frequent emptying, performed by workers driving "honeywagons", a precursor to the vacuum truck now used to pump out septage from septic tanks. The municipal emptying of pail toilets continued in Australia into the second half of the twentieth century; these were known as dunnies and the workers were dunnymen.
- World Bank, ILO, WaterAid, and WHO (2019). Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment. World Bank, Washington, DC.
- ABHINAV AKHILESH, MEERA MEHTA, ZARA JUNEJA (10 April 2020). "How can we support sanitation workers during COVID-19?". India Development Review (IDR). Retrieved 23 April 2020.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- PRIA (2019): Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers in India: Insights from a Participatory Research Conducted in Three Cities of India. Participatory Research in Asia, New Delhi, India
- Sperandeo, L., Srinivasan, S. (2020). The Heroes behind Sanitation - An insight into faecal sludge management workers in Zambia. BORDA, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Bonn, Germany
- "Waste360". Retrieved 18 March 2020.
- Benelli, Natalie (2011). "Sweeping the Streets of the Neoliberal City: Racial and Class Divisions among New York City's Sanitation Workers". Journal of Workplace Rights. 16 (3–4): 453–474. doi:10.2190/WR.16.3-4.l.
- "MEMPHIS SANITATION WORKERS STRIKE!". Memphis Public Library. 12 February 1968. Retrieved 18 March 2020.
- Ray, I., Prasad, CS S. (2018). Where there are no Sewers - Photoessays on Sanitation Work in Urban India. Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) secretariat at GIZ, Eschborn, Germany
- "Dirty Job Shows Why Cholera Still Kills in Haiti". VOA. 28 December 2016. Retrieved 2017-07-30.
- Eales, K., Blackett, I. (2019). FSM5 - Thematic Papers. Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA), Bremen, Germany
- HSE (2011) Working with sewage - The health hazards: A guide for employers, Health and Safety Executive UK.
- Labour Department (2006) Safety Guide for Work in Manholes Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the Labour Department, Hong Kong Government
- HSE (2013). Confined spaces - A brief guide to working safely, Health and Safety Executive UK.
- HSE (n.d.) Leptospirosis (Weil’s Disease and Hardjo). Health and Safety Executive UK.
- The Employment Of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Govt. of India.
- "Treat Sanitation Workers Like Health Workers, Pay Them At Least Rs 20,000 Per Month". The Wire. 22 April 2020. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
- Walters, Vicky (2019-01-02). "Parenting from the 'Polluted' Margins: Stigma, Education and Social (Im)Mobility for the Children of India's Out-Casted Sanitation Workers". South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 42 (1): 51–68. doi:10.1080/00856401.2019.1556377. ISSN 0085-6401.
- SUKANYA RANGAMANI, KANNAMEDI BHEEMAPPA OBALESHA, RAKHAL GAITONDE (2015). "Health issues of sanitation workers in a town in Karnataka: Findings from a lay health-monitoring study (Short Report)" (PDF). The National Medical Journal of India. 28 (2): 70.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- "Sanitation Worker Project Animation (video)". Dalberg Global Development Advisors. 3 September 2018. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
- Curnutte, Mark (2011). A Promise in Haiti: A Reporter's Notes on Families and Daily Lives. Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press. p. 81. ISBN 9780826517852.
- Vilsaint, Féquière; Berret, Jean-Evens (2005). English Haitian Creole Dictionary (2nd ed.). Coconut Creek, Florida: Educa Vision Inc. p. 149. ISBN 9781584322139.
- Knox, Richard (13 April 2012). "Port-Au-Prince: A City Of Millions, With No Sewer System". NPR. Retrieved 2017-07-30.
- Ramamoorthy, R., Pandey, K. D., Rajakuma, D. S., Ramasamy, N., Sharma, R. (2018). Desludging Operators in Tiruchirappalli: An Overview. Indian Institute for Human Settlements, India
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- Sanitation Workers in India - a 5-month long study of sanitation workers across India carried out in 2017