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EDITORIAL: Coincidental to the International Human Rights Day recently, the delegates of sanitation workers from 24 districts met in the capital city of Islamabad and asked the government and society why they don’t treat them as humans. They face social stigma, contempt and prejudicial treatment as if they are outcasts and their profession as sweepers is an abuse reserved for the lowly beings by people at large.

Who cares for the ‘sweepers’? But this time was an exception - the ‘First Dignity Convention and 4th Annual Dignity Awards Ceremony for Promoting Dignity and Decent Working Conditions for Sanitation Workers of Pakistan’ presented a charter, expressing “deepest respect and gratification for sanitation workers irrespective of their social status, gender, religion, sect, caste, colour or ethnicity”.

French Ambassador Nicolas Galey in his opening statement at the function said the plight of sanitation workers was overlooked, and that prompted his government to extend support. He also noted that rightly so the workers gathered in Islamabad have strongly condemned the “dehumanizing attitude towards sanitation workers”.

The Centre for Law and Justice (CLJ) said each year hundreds of workers die while opening clogged sewer lines because they are not provided with safety equipment and most suffer from skin and lung diseases. According to an ILO (International Labour Organisation) survey, the sanitation workers face a fatality risk that is 10 times higher than those in all other industries.

The sanitation workers, abusively called sweepers (bhangis), are product of colonial times, as the Christian missionaries worked overtime to seek conversion of people of Hindu Dalits to Christianity, and did nothing beyond ditching converts to be nothing more than sweepers. That not much has been done for them since Independence is also a fact. In Pakistan, about 80 percent of them belong to Christianity despite their being only 2 percent of general population.

Things must change now, and that change is mandated by the Constitution. According to Article 38(a), the state shall secure the well-being of the people, “irrespective of sex, caste, creed or race, by raising standard of living”.

The Constitution also mandates that the state shall provide for “all persons employed in the service of Pakistan or otherwise, social security by compulsory social insurance or other means”. Not that the Christians managed to have more jobs as compared to other religious groups; they have more jobs because the Muslims abhor to be sweepers and are unwilling to open the clogged sewer lines.

How ironic, however, it is the jobs of sanitation workers attract the lowest government pay scales. Even in the national capital’s premier hospital PIMS nearly 90 percent are in grade 1, and it may take one 20 years or more to move to the next grade. While a sanitation worker is a specialist in his or her own way he or she is not compensated accordingly. That kind of discrimination against the sanitation workers is in violation of the Constitution.

What could have been more appropriate for the government on the Human Rights Day than to assure the sanitation workers that that they too are equal citizens and would be treated as such.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022


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