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Whether the task is cleaning toilets or emptying septic tanks, sanitation workers in developing countries around the world are responsible for protecting people’s health. More often than not, their own well-being and safety are overlooked, according to a new report. 

Millions of sanitation workers are forced to work in conditions that put their health in jeopardy and violate their dignity and human rights, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Nov. 14. 

The report “Health, Safety, and Dignity of Sanitation Workers,” co-authored by the International Labor Organization, Water Aid, the World Bank, and the WHO, shines a light on the “de-humanizing working conditions” of sanitation and is a push for change, according to a press release. The report is the biggest global study on sanitation workers to date. 

“It is only when those critical services fail, when society is confronted with fecal waste in ditches, streets, rivers, and beaches or occasional media reports of sanitation worker deaths, that the daily practice and plight of sanitation workers come to light,” the WHO said in a statement.

It is common for sanitation workers to be exposed to health hazards and diseases by working without equipment or protection, according to the report. They also tend to work in informal work environments that are hard to regulate and lack rights or social protections.

“Pay can be inconsistent or non-existent,” the report said, and some workers reported they are compensated in food instead of money. Sanitation workers mostly work at night, are ostracized from society, and are highly stigmatized. They are some of the world’s most marginalized, poor, and discriminated against people. 

“Sanitation workers make a key contribution to public health around the world – but in so doing, put their own health at risk,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment. “This is unacceptable.”

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Few countries in the developing world have laws to protect sanitation workers. Even in countries where protections exist, governments don’t always have the financial or technical resources to enforce them. 

South Africa is highlighted in the report as one country prioritizing sanitation workers’ rights. Public and private employees in South Africa abide by national labor standards and have proper equipment and training.

The WHO is focusing on ensuring that policies to protect sanitation workers’ rights are applied on a national level and managed on the local level. The organization is also working to estimate the burden of disease for sanitation workers. 

The report advises countries and funding partners on how to reform sanitation policy and laws, create and apply operational guidelines, strengthen best practices and empower workers.

“We must improve working conditions for these people and strengthen the sanitation workforce, so we can meet global water and sanitation targets,” Neira said.


Defeat Poverty

Millions of Workers in Developing Countries Are Risking Their Lives to Provide Safe Sanitation

By Leah Rodriguez