NEEDHAM, Massachusetts — COVID-19 has deemed sanitation workers essential workers in fighting the pandemic which has granted them a larger appreciation for their work. Sanitation work is a profession that can impact poverty by keeping communities clean. It also perpetuates it by putting the workers at risk for health concerns, conditions and unsustainable pay among five other hidden dangers that sanitary workers face.
Sanitation workers are at risk for a range of diseases including asthma, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, polio, blunt trauma and gastroenteritis. One Wuhan, China study found that musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory problems and skin disease are health hazards that sanitation workers frequently face. Overexposure to intense weather conditions, chemicals and animal excreta contribute to extreme dermatological conditions in the face, hands, feet and hair. Overexposure to UV radiation results in skin cancer, harms the immune system, ages and produces pigmentation in youthful skin as well as vision problems. Photokeratitis and cataracts are examples of long-term vision impairments resulting from excessive UV exposure. Overexposure to cold weather produces severe cases of frostbite and dermatitis. In Mumbai, India, 2,721 sanitation workers died between 2004 to 2014 from health hazards.
The positive impact that sanitation workers have on society has stayed consistent while the discrimination the workers face has immensely increased. Many sanitation workers in India and other countries have no other option than to pursue sanitation work because of the caste system. Being born into impoverished communities leaves little to no room for social mobility and scarce job opportunities due to a lack of education opportunities.
Employers are denying workers leave due to the influx of COVID-19 cases throughout India. The protective gear being provided is not adequate enough to provide proper protection. Contract sanitation workers in Mumbai experience exclusion from welfare or insurance benefits. Female sanitation workers frequently face more discrimination than others. They often receive significantly less pay than others or find themselves only able to work in waste collection.
The ongoing exposure to difficult situations can produce extreme psychological distress for sanitation workers. For example, the potential of contracting COVID-19 at work pushes many sanitation workers to consume alcohol or drugs for comfort. This consumption can cause further health hazards in addition to what workers come into contact with at work. Female sanitation workers are also facing psychological problems at higher rates. WaterAid, the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO) have all determined that a third of sanitation workers experience some form of violence. Psychological problems alienate sanitation workers from society and prevent upward mobility.
The pay for sanitation workers is insufficient to live comfortably. As of 2021, the monthly average pay of individuals who work in sanitation in India equates to $187.26 a month. Meanwhile, in China, the average monthly payment is $330.14. In some areas of India, people sometimes receive small food rations rather than money for the work they perform. This inconsistency is harmful to sanitary workers who need to provide for and support their families. Although loans are an option, they have low success rates due to a lack of access. Many sanitation worker savings go toward hospital bills based due to work-related health hazards.
Lack of Social Security Coverage
In many countries, worker aid policies often exclude those who work in sanitation. Many sanitation workers are under specific contracts without aid and India’s complex labor market does not benefit sanitary workers. It includes both formal versus informal employment. Sanitation work falls under informal work without strong social security coverage. Social security qualification is dependent on everything from wages to the number of workers in an enterprise. There is no guaranteed minimum amount of coverage for informal workers.
India produces an unequal distribution of social security to informal workers. There are separate government ministries and databases running the various social security schemes within different states. The non-unified system makes it difficult for workers to keep track of benefits. Workers often have to give up certain benefits that do not translate when the workers start work in a new state.
Limited access to social security also affects informal workers negatively. One study in Karnataka showed that 77% of households reported a reduction in their food consumption and 47% were unable to buy weekly essentials by May 2020. Informal workers who were struggling to access social security participated in the survey.
What is Next?
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced new labels for sanitation workers including “essential workers” and “coronavirus warriors.” The newfound appreciation is not producing the change necessary to eliminate the hidden dangers. These five hidden dangers sanitation workers face show the importance of policies to improve the working conditions for sanitary workers.
Legislative measures need to undergo integration to ensure better sanitation worker treatment. Sanitation workers deserve humane working conditions as well as social security that is obtainable. The Ahmedabad, India-based Mahila Housing Sewa Trust (MHT) focuses on simplifying the process of social mobility services including financing housing for slum dwellers who make up most of the sanitation worker population. Since 2016, MHT has provided microfinance services to 9,830 people, health services to 42,456 and training and information to 3,437.
Sanitation workers risk their lives to ensure the cleanliness of critically important institutions ranging from schools and hospitals to public streets. The cities of Wuhan, Mumbai and Karnataka are only three examples of areas of the world where those with employment in sanitation are experiencing mistreatment and exploitation.
– Maggie Forte