GENEVA (ILO News) – A joint report  by the International Labour Organization (ILO), World Bank, World Health Organization and WaterAid, highlights the unsafe and undignified working conditions of sanitation workers in a number of developing countries.

The report, issued to mark World Toilet Day  on 19 November, is the most extensive exploration to date of the plight of sanitation workers in the developing world.

It is based on a study of sanitation workers in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Haiti, India, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda.

Most sanitation workers, the report says, are in the informal economy and are deprived of their rights and social protection. Only limited efforts have been made to understand their challenges or to develop and document good practices, approaches, policies, standards and regulations, in order to help improve their working conditions.

“There is a lack of policies, laws and regulations surrounding sanitation workers, and where they exist they tend to be weak, covering only certain types of sanitation workers, or lack the required financing or enforcement mechanism,” said Alette Van Leur, Director of the Sectoral Policies Department at the ILO.

Sanitation workers involved in cleaning toilets, emptying pits and septic tanks, cleaning sewers and manholes, and operating pumping stations and treatment plants, are typically at high risk from faecal pathogens in their daily work. They may also be exposed to chemical and physical risks.

Manual scavengers, for instance, are exposed to serious health hazards such as cholera, typhoid and hepatitis, as well as toxic gases such as ammonia and carbon monoxide. In South Asian countries, manual scavenging is widespread.

People are dying every day from both poor sanitation and dangerous working conditions – we cannot allow this to continue.”

Tim Wainwright, CEO of WaterAid

Unsafe working conditions are also common for manual and mechanical emptiers of septic tanks and pit latrines, as well as for companies providing maintenance to sewers, pumping stations and wastewater treatment works, where the training of workers is often insufficient or inexistent.

The report makes four main recommendations:

  • Reforming policy, legislation and regulations to professionalize the sanitation workforce.
  • Developing and adopting operational guidelines to assess and mitigate the occupational risks of all types of sanitation work.
  • Advocating for sanitation workers and promoting their empowerment to protect worker rights.
  • Building the evidence base and documenting the challenges sanitation worker face.

It also calls on governments to ratify and implement ILO Occupational and Safety Conventions relating to sanitation workers.

“Everyone goes to the toilet and everyone is put at risk of deadly waterborne disease if the waste is not properly dealt with. Sanitation workers therefore carry out some of the most important roles in any society,” said Tim Wainwright, CEO of WaterAid.

“It is shocking therefore, that sanitation workers are forced to work in conditions that endanger their health and lives and must cope with stigma and marginalization, rather than have adequate equipment and recognition of the life-saving work they carry out. People are dying every day from both poor sanitation and dangerous working conditions – we cannot allow this to continue,” he added.