In 1968, two garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee were crushed to death after a truck malfunctioned. That same day, nearly two dozen sanitation workers were sent home without pay. Together, the incidents prompted 1,100 sanitation workers in the city to go on strike in what has since been known as the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike.
The strike highlighted a growing need for the protection of civil rights as well as actions to protect the health and safety of workers who deal with some of humanity’s dirtiest messes. Now, a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) finds that millions of people who work in sanitation in the developing world are faced with conditions that endanger their health and violate their dignity and basic human rights.
Globally, poor sanitation contributes to 432,000 diarrheal deaths every year and is linked to the transmission of dangerous diseases like typhoid, polio, cholera, and hepatitis A, according to the WHO. Sanitation workers provide an often unnoticed but “invaluable service” that is “vital to the proper functioning of the sanitation systems that underpin daily life” by cleaning up society’s messes – literally – when it comes to cleaning toilets, emptying septic tanks, and cleaning sewers, among other tasks.
“Sanitation workers provide an essential public service but often at the cost of their dignity, safety, health, and living conditions. They are some of the most vulnerable workers. They are far too often invisible, unquantified, and ostracized, and many of the challenges they face stem from this fundamental lack of acknowledgment,” reads the report, adding that sanitation workers are also “exposed to serious occupational and environmental health hazards risking illness, injury, and death.”
Yet sanitation workers are typically marginalized, poor, and discriminated against while often lacking proper equipment, protection, and legal rights. Authored by an international group of health and humanitarian organizations, the first-ever extensive global study on sanitation workers finds four key areas that global leaders can focus on in order to align with the Sustainable Development Goal 6 to bringing clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene to everyone, everywhere by 2030.
Reforming policy, legislation, and regulation to acknowledge and professionalize the sanitation workforce will help to make it a legitimate sector of functioning society necessary for sustainable development, notes the report. Developing and adopting such guidelines will help to assess and mitigate risks associated with the jobs and will further help to streamline the workforce. Advocating for worker protections will help to both change the stigma and highlight the importance of their work. Furthermore, building evidence to quantify the work and document challenges that workers face in a public setting will help to establish further necessary worker protections.
“A fundamental principle of health is 'first do no harm'. Sanitation workers make a key contribution to public health around the world – but in so doing, put their own health at risk. This is unacceptable,” said Maria Neira, director of the WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment, in a statement. “We must improve working conditions for these people and strengthen the sanitation workforce, so we can meet global water and sanitation targets.”
Even when there are laws or guidelines meant to protect the workers, the report finds that many developing nations do not have the financial or technical resources to ensure that they are acted upon.