Advocating for the Rights of Sanitation Workers Amidst Covid-19

Advocating for the Rights of Sanitation Workers Amidst Covid-19

The ongoing battle with Covid-19 seems to be an unending one. As the world grapples with the pandemic, there happen to be those ready to take the fight to the virus itself. Our health professionals, policemen, delivery boys, etc. have been constantly working to keep the country up and running in such grave times. Countries all over the globe have been affected by the pandemic and despite taking the best possible measures, the number of people affected and lives lost to the disease only keeps increasing. Especially affected by this pandemic are our frontline warriors, which include our doctors, nurses, policemen, and sanitation workers.

We come across Sanitation workers almost on a daily basis. The services they provide us with are very crucial but are often ignored because of the stigma attached to it. Our doctors, nurses, and policemen are lauded for their work, but the efforts of our sanitation workers often go unnoticed. COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable and underequipped our healthcare system is and the same can be said about our waste management system. While much of the world uses technology and complex machines to treat its waste, this is still largely carried out manually throughout India. Recently in Dharavi, a Sanitation Worker tested positive for COVID-19 as a consequence of which, his wife and son-in-law were infected too which then led to his wife’s death. Masks, gloves, and hand soaps are often a luxury to them. Since most of them are employed in the unorganized sector, they are forced by their employers, in this case primarily municipal corporations and contractors, to either work and be paid or be left unemployed.

Article 46 of the Constitution mandates that the state is under an obligation to work to uplift the weaker sections of society keeping in mind their educational and economic interests, but when incidents like that of Dharavi come to light, we realize that only so much has been done and that they have been historically deprived of their rights.

Judicial Approach

The issue was highlighted when a plea was filed in the Supreme Court on 9 April 2020 highlighting the plight of migrant workers amidst COVID-19. The Petitioner Harnam Singh in his Public Interest Litigation (PIL) prayed to the Court to issue necessary directions to the State for Sanitation Workers to be provided with a proper kit including gloves, masks, and boots, etc., to wear while on duty. Instead of our health workers who work in closed protected environments, they have to deal with what has been discarded by society as waste. Considering that the virus can survive for days on various surfaces if not sanitized, the possibility of these workers contracting the virus from such places increases drastically.

Article 21 of the constitution of India provides for the Right to life. It encompasses within itself all such rights necessary for one to live his life with dignity one of which is the Right to Health.

In Consumer Education and Research Centre v. Union of India, the Supreme Court laid down that:

“Social justice which is a device to ensure life to be meaningful and liveable with human dignity requires the State to provide to workmen facilities and opportunities to reach at least minimum standard of health, economic security and civilized living. The health and strength of worker, the court said, was an important facet of right to life. Denial thereof denudes the workmen the finer facets of life violating Art. 21.”

The plea also states that Sections 2(1)(d), 7, and 9 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 should be strictly complied with. It implies that if any worker is employed in the cleaning of hazardous waste i.e. manual cleaning without any protective gear or any other necessary kit, then the employer can be punished for a period of up to two years and will also be liable to pay a fine of up to two lakh rupees. It may also extend for up to five years of imprisonment or five lakh rupees or both.

Even after the enactment of this act, the unsanitary and dehumanizing practice of cleaning waste manually still continues to this day. The pandemic has changed nothing as even prior to this outbreak they led a life which posed risk to their lives every single day. Addressing the issue of working conditions of sanitary workers/manual scavengers, the Supreme Court in the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors. said that the practice of hazardous cleaning is dehumanizing and risks the lives of the people cleaning potholes and picking up garbage with bare hands. The court consequently issued a few guidelines on this concerning issue. These guidelines were:

  • Entering sewer lines without proper safety gear should be a criminal liability on part of the employer. Also, in case of the death of a worker, his/her family shall be provided a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh.
  • Railways should take responsibility for eradicating the practice of manual scavenging on the tracks.
  • Persons liberated from the practice should not have to wait to receive what is their legitimate due under the law.
  • Support should be provided for a dignified livelihood to women sanitation workers.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo moto cognizance in the case of Court on its own motion v. Union of India suggested that for improving the working conditions of Sanitation workers they should be provided with proper uniforms and be given brooms with sufficiently long handles with the length of the broom being 80-85 cm. The Court also suggested that the solid waste can be treated by composting or by incineration and/or by deploying a bio-methanation process as well as a pyrolysis methodology.

International Labour Organization (ILO) Guidelines

The responsibility falls on not just the shoulders of the Government but also on us as a society, to ensure that our workers’ health and economic interests are being taken care of. The Government in this regard should try and push forth the implementation of recommendations made by the ILO on the technical advancement, health and hygiene, and good working conditions for such workers among other concerning issues.

The ILO issued certain guidelines for employers and employees on 27th March 2020 so as to serve the interest of both parties on the subject. The ILO suggests that the onus should be on employers to ensure that all preventive measures are being taken care of so as to reduce the risk of Occupational Hazards by providing the employees with better protective equipment and clothing. However in India, considering the conditions these workers are employed in, it seems unlikely that their lives would hold the same meaning as that of our doctors and nurses.

The ILO has set International Labour Standards wherein guidance is provided for decent working conditions in such a crisis. The Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205) is among one such standards. It elaborates crisis responses ensuring human rights, including respect for fundamental principles and rights at work and for International Labour Standards. The recommendation provides for a robust strategy to crisis response that includes immediate employment and social protection measures, and it suggests that Governments all around the globe shall seek to ensure basic income security for individuals whose lives have been disrupted by the ongoing crisis.

What can be done

The government should take several affirmative steps including:

  • The government should make use of technology and machines to treat medical waste.
  • Raise awareness among such workers on what precautions to take while on duty so as to not come in contact with the virus.
  • They should be provided with proper protective gear while on duty.
  • In case a worker cannot make it to work because of lockdown, the government should ensure that wages are not cut and jobs are not lost.
  • Governments of Delhi and Rajasthan recently declared that if a health professional dies while treating COVID-19 patients, their families would be provided with a compensation of Rs. 1 crore and 50 lakhs respectively. A compensation scheme along similar lines should be established for sanitation workers.
  • Suggestions made by the Central Pollution Control Board in Guidelines for Handling, Treatment, and Disposable of waste generated during Treatment/Diagnosis/Quarantine of COVID-19 patients should be followed.

As of the 20th of April, the central government has issued an advisory to all the states to make sure that sanitation workers are provided with proper IDs/passes for work, are equipped with PPEs and sanitizers and also encouraged them to not touch waste with bare hands and work with protective suits on, maintain a distance of at least 1 meter between them and use disinfectant to clean the gear afterward.

Concluding Remarks

According to a report by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis; a statutory body set up by an act of parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers, between 2015 and 2019, one person died every five days on average while manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks across India. This data is from a time when the world wasn’t dealing with a pandemic at large. Considering how contagious and deadly the virus is, it is only going to add to the number of deaths of our sanitation workers if appropriate measures are not taken.

The Indian Government in this regard has undertaken innumerable steps to improve the working and living conditions of our sanitation workers but the implementation of all such policies has been very poor. And in times like these when the country is busy fighting the pandemic on multiple fronts, they can at often times feel neglected.

It is now a known fact that the virus is spreading through respiratory water droplets and from surfaces on which it can survive for hours on end if not for days. Hence it becomes equally important for the government to ensure that anybody dealing with household or medical waste is well equipped so as to not come in contact with the virus while handling its disposal as even a single case of a worker contracting the disease while on duty could prove to be catastrophic.

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