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Report Deplores Conditions for Sanitation Workers in Developing Countries

FILE - Sewer cleaning workers and others sit during a protest near the Indian parliament calling for safer working conditions following the deaths of several sanitation employees, in New Delhi, India, Sept.25, 2018.

A new report by leading health and safety agencies finds millions of sanitation workers in developing countries are forced to work under horrific conditions that put their health and lives at risk.

Sanitation workers everywhere occupy the lowest rung of society and are stigmatized and marginalized because they do the dirty work that other people do not want to do.

The report's authors - the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and WaterAid – say they hope to raise awareness on the plight of sanitation workers and the dehumanizing conditions under which they are forced to work. For example, the report says that many sanitation workers aren’t given the safety training or equipment needed to protect them when handling effluent or fecal sludge.

World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier says sanitation workers make an important contribution to public health at the risk of their own lives. Poor sanitation, he says, causes more than 430,000 deaths from diarrhea every year and is linked to the spread of other diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis A and polio.

“Sanitation workers are the people who work in jobs such as cleaning toilets, emptying pits and septic tanks, cleaning sewage and manholes and operating pumping stations and treatment plants.… Waste must be correctly treated before being disposed of or used. However, workers often come into direct contact with human waste, working with no equipment or no protection to remove it by hand which exposes them to a long list of health hazards and diseases,” Lindmeier said.

Authors of the report say sanitation workers in developing countries largely operate in the informal sector. They labor under abusive conditions, have no rights or social protections and are poorly paid.

The study calls on countries to rectify these wrongs. It urges governments to enact laws and regulations that improve working conditions for sanitation workers and protect their safety and health. It says sanitation workers must be given the equipment and training necessary for the safe, proper disposal of waste.