SERVICES – Pakistan

‘We are fighting for justice, and it has a cost’ – the plight of Christian sanitation workers

Asif Aqeel and Mary Gill

Christians form less than 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population overall, but they make up the large majority of all sanitation workers. Jobs for sanitation workers are regularly advertised with the stipulation that only non-Muslims need apply: only non-Muslims are expected to undertake this hazardous work, and the fact that only non-Muslims do it seems to mean that the risks are ignored. This work is typically handed down within families and communities, with sanitation workers considered by many to be low class, uneducated and literally ‘untouchable’. 

Sanitation work is poorly paid and highly dangerous too, with at least 30 people having died since 2017 while unblocking sewers, alongside many others who have lost their lives carrying out other forms of sanitation work. Little or no effort is made to ensure that people are safe while they work: they regularly go down sewers known to contain noxious gases without any protective clothing, masks, gloves or breathing equipment. Furthermore, no one has ever been held accountable for the negligence which contributes to so many deaths and injuries every year. When workers are hurt or killed doing their jobs, their families are usually threatened or bribed to not pursue complaints or to withdraw cases. The unsafe practices never change, and society at large does not seem to care. 

One of the most recent tragedies to occur was the death of Naseem Bibi in the small Pakistani town of Sargodha in October 2021. Naseem’s death could easily have been prevented: he and a fellow worker, who also died, descended into a sewer without protection after another colleague fell from a ladder which was broken. Naseem had been responding to an emergency call at 10 p.m. that night. He had been reluctant to go, but his wife reminded him that the company had threatened to no longer give him work if he did not go when called and do as he was told. Following his accident, fire and rescue personnel arrived on the scene but refused to go down into the sewer to rescue the workers, despite having protective gear and breathing apparatus. Eventually another sewer worker, without any gear to speak of, descended and retrieved the bodies. 

Sanitation work is poorly paid and highly dangerous. Since 2017, at least 30 people have died while unblocking sewers.

Naseem, like many other poor Christians, had been doing this work for 16 years but he was still a ‘daily wager’. He had formally requested that his service be recognized so that he could become a permanent employee with more rights, but this had not been done. His family is therefore not automatically entitled to compensation from the company. His wife, Mariam, also works in sanitation as a litter collector for the same corporation. She has been told that she may not continue to get work if she pursues a case against the supervisors who were in charge that fatal night. She cannot afford to feed her family, let alone keep the children in school on her wage alone. Nevertheless, she made the brave decision to take on the corporation in what could be a landmark legal ruling. If she succeeds, not only will she get compensation, but her actions will force the corporations to pay attention to the health and safety of all these workers, in the knowledge that there will be consequences if they fail to do so. ‘The union officials and others have contacted us that we take 500,000 rupees and withdraw the case,’ Mariam said. ‘But we are fighting for justice, and it has a cost.’ 

The Centre for Legal Justice (CLJ) has been educating sanitation workers about their rights and campaigning for a change in their status for many years. Recently, with support from the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) and MRG, CLJ lobbied for them to receive personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimize infections when they are working in quarantine centres and on hospital wards. These campaigns have had some impact, but ultimately the motivation for corporations to put potentially life-saving changes in place when there are no legal consequences for their negligence is limited. If a landmark judgment can be reached, however, that finds the supervisors guilty of negligence and awards compensation to the widows and families of the workers, this has the potential to fundamentally transform the situation in a number of ways, not only placing greater pressure on supervisors and corporations to do the right thing, but also empowering sanitation workers to insist on safer and more humane working conditions. 

No legal action was ever taken following previous fatalities, despite many of the cases being very similar and involving workers being sent into dangerous situations without adequate protective gear, as well as the failure of health or rescue professionals to do their jobs. Mariam and her nephew, who is named as the complainant in the case, have refused to be cowed by the threats, bribes and false promises made by the management of the corporation or by other parties. Mariam is afraid for her job and, even if she manages to keep it, does not know how she will feed her children and send them to school. However, she does know that the life of her husband and other workers like him is not worth any less.

Photo: A Center for Law and Justice volunteer distributes masks during among sanitation workers, barely provided with any personal protective equipment, during Covid-19. Courtesy of Center for Law and Justice