In addition to health and safety risk, manual scavenging is a highly stigmatised profession and a serious violation of human rights
A very common scenario that we often see while walking in the road is some people diving into a manhole, sewer or drain and bringing out the waste to facilitate the smooth flow of the drainage system.
While we cannot even stand by this disgusting sight, sanitation workers do this job regularly without any sort of precaution.
Bangladesh, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, is still struggling to establish appropriate faecal sludge management in the urban areas. To maintain the urban sanitation, Bangladesh is still highly dependent on a very tragic & shameful practice called "manual scavenging".
The scavengers mainly work for gathering human waste from the septic tank, drain, sewages by crawling or sometimes by diving into them. This work is carried out without adequate protection. This dramatically unhygienic occupation involves women, men and children who are born in the lower caste of the society or a poor family. Considering their occupation menial, they are often subjected to discrimination which also prevents them from having a normal life.
In Bangladesh, sanitation workers are either recruited by the city corporations or they are employed privately. The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, in its definition section (Section 2 clause LXV) said a worker is who works in any establishment or industry either directly or through a contractor.
Taking this definition into account, it can be established that, the manual scavenger can fall under both formal and informal labour. Section 46 of the Bangladesh Labour Rule, 2015, said, a worker should use a mask when he/she working in dust and fume. Section 47(2) clearly states that irrespective of any circumstances, considering the health of the worker, if the inspector finds it necessary, then he can take a supplementary step for disposal of solid garbage or liquid faecal.
Section 67(2) of the same law affirms that to ensure the personal safety of every worker, they should be provided with protective gear which includes safety shoes, hand gloves, mask, goggles, apron, earplug etc. In addition to that, The National Occupational Health and Safety Policy 2013 and The Dhaka Institutional and Regulatory Framework for Fecal Sludge Management 2017 include guidelines about occupational health and safety for pit emptying service.
Such rules might make life a bit easier for formal manual scavenger with guaranteed income and partial health insurance but the worst is happening for the informal workers in this trade.
However, regardless of being formal or informal scavenger most of them do not use any protective gear. As a result, they suffer from endless medical condition including fever, fatigue, cholera, typhoid, asthma, polio, hepatitis, skin burn or irritation.
Nonetheless, people risk their lives for doing such thankless yet obnoxious jobs which also lead to death by asphyxiation due to inhaling noxious gas in both septic tank and sewers. In addition to health and safety risk, manual scavenging is a highly stigmatised and serious violation of human right due to the unsafe working environment and associated discrimination.
They are often stigmatised against- living in segregate sweeping colony, which offer poor and overcrowded living conditions and use shared facilities.
Though the Constitution of Bangladesh, in Article 15 indicated that it is the state's fundamental responsibility to attain steady improvement of material and cultural standards of living through ensuring the right to work with reasonable wages in regards to quantity and quality of work, in reality, the misery of scavengers has remained static.
Specific law and regulation for the wellbeing of a sanitation worker is still non-existence. The existing laws have not talked much about enforcing mechanism for the well-being of manual scavengers.
On the other hand, realising the monstrosity of this work, countries like India, outlawed the system of manual scavenging and enact a law named The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013.
The law also focused on increasing punishment for manual scavenging and rehabilitation of those who involved in the occupation. The Supreme Court of India, in Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors. Vs. Union of India and Ors also opined that manual scavenging violates international human rights and strictly ordered to put an end to the manual scavenging.
Bangladesh could walk down to the same road to interdict this practice of medieval time and might offer rehabilitation and alternative employment for the concerned worker. Widespread use of technology like vacuum track into septic tank could be an effective way to solve this problem.
Besides the minimum could do for the sanitation worker is to provide each of them proper protection gear and to guarantee a stable income. The government can bring both formal and informal sanitation worker into one uniform law where their work shall be recognised and ratified by the international labour standard.
Above all that, integrated them into mainstream society though recognise the vital work they carried out regularly by the communities and societies itself could be a breakthrough approach towards this unsung hero of our country.