Sanitation workers demand social justice, respect on Human Rights Day

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Zubair Qureshi

Sanitation workers of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) on Saturday held a protest demonstration calling for protection of their rights, social justice and respect in society.

Sanitation workers from 24 districts gathered in the federal capital on International Human Rights Day and demanded that the government and society treat them as human beings.

Social stigma, hatred, and prejudicial treatment towards sanitation workers, as if they were outcasts, were the root cause of the horrible treatment they received from society in general and the state in particular.

The programme titled “The First Dignity Convention and 4th Annual Dignity Awards Ceremony for Promoting Dignity and Decent Working Conditions for Sanitation Workers in Pakistan” presented a chart expressing “deepest respect and gratitude for sanitation workers irrespective of their social status, gender, religion, sect, caste, colour or ethnicity.” Opening the programme, French Ambassador to Pakistan Nicolas Galey, said the plight of sanitation workers was overlooked, which is why the French government had extended support to these marginalized workers. Workers who had gathered from all four provinces strongly condemned the “de-humanising attitude towards sanitation workers”. They demanded that school textbooks and public service messages be brought forth to discourage the inhuman treatment of the workers. According to the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ), one of the program’s organisers, each year, hundreds of workers die while opening clogged sewer lines and cleaning busy roads. Because the workers are not provided with safety equipment, most suffer from skin and lung diseases, said CLJ Executive Director Mary James Gill.

“Sanitation is an essential service and falls under the ambit of the local government”, said Common Law Chambers senior counsel Syed Ali Raza Shah, who presented a white paper on laws related to sanitation workers. “Unfortunately, the work is neither treated as labour nor as service by the state functionaries, which shows there is little seriousness about sanitation and the workers who perform these duties.”People generally dislike associating with sanitation workers, eating or drinking or even shaking hands with them. Despite providing essential services, workers are not provided with safety equipment. “This is because sanitation workers are not considered human beings,” said Chaudhry Waris Masih, General Secretary of United Workers Union DMC East. “Sanitation is dangerous, so the weakest sections of society are forced into this labour.”

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 requires providing clean water and sanitation to everyone, especially those left furthest behind in development. Pakistan was the first country to pledge to achieve the United Nations’ SDGs by 2030, known as Agenda 2030. Government advertisements clearly demand only non-Muslims for this labour. “The issue is of human rights, labour rights and minorities’ rights,” said Ms Gill. “The issue arises from the Indian caste system, but very little attention has been paid to eradicate this evil practice in Pakistan.”