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Unpaid and Exploited: Sanitation Workers Denied Dignity and Rights

From risking their lives in hazardous conditions to enduring caste-based discrimination, sanitation workers, who form an integral part of our society, grapple with a deeply entrenched system that perpetuates their plight.

By Diksha Puri
New Update

Sanitation workers in India

Manual scavengers at work | Photo courtesy: www.safaikarmachariandolan.org

On Friday, two sanitation workers died, and two others fainted due to suffocation while cleaning a septic tank in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Last week in Lucknow, sanitation workers staged a protest demanding the release of their pending salaries for three months. In Delhi, the salaries of MCD sanitation workers for June were credited in July. Sanitation workers across the country have been facing numerous challenges, including non-payment of salaries, exploitation by contractors, government apathy, and caste-based discrimination. These issues constitute just a few of the many problems they confront on a daily basis.

Bezwada Wilson, National Convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan speaks to The Probe’s Diksha Puri on the plight of sanitation workers in India. 

Bezwada Wilson, the National Convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, highlights a troubling reality in India: despite the legal prohibition of manual scavenging, many sanitation workers are still compelled to enter sewers across the country. Tragically, some lose their lives while others suffer the erosion of their dignity. However, the most distressing aspect of their plight is when they do not receive proper compensation for their work.

"The sanitation workers in India have been enduring prolonged delays in receiving their salaries for many years. The one-month delay in the payment of MCD sanitation workers in Delhi is not an isolated incident but rather a persistent issue that has been going on for several years. Often, these delays stretch from four to six months, with some municipalities even withholding salaries for nearly a year. This unfortunate situation has devastating consequences, as the livelihoods of these workers and their families hang in the balance. While officers, bill collectors, and others receive their salaries at the right time, sanitation workers continue to suffer from these protracted delays. The mindset of these people on the higher-ups needs to change. These salary non-payments are not just a violation of Indian labour laws but must be seen as a human rights issue as well," asserts Wilson.

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Many sanitation workers across India are pushed into manual scavenging. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (MS Act, 2013) strictly prohibits manual scavenging throughout the country since December 6, 2013. It is illegal for any individual or organisation to engage or employ anyone in manual scavenging, and violators of the provisions outlined in the MS Act 2013 can face punishment under Section 8 of the Act, which includes imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to rupees one lakh, or both. 

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Wilson states that while manual scavenging is a reality and must stop, the non-payment of salaries to sanitation workers must be made a punishable offence. “There are clear laws that state that labourers, whether on contract or permanent basis, monthly retainership, or any other form of employment, must be paid their salaries on time. If their salaries are not received after one month, they have every right to lodge a complaint. Unfortunately, in our country, the enforcement of these laws is inadequate. There should be penalties and punishments imposed on departments that fail to pay or delay payments to sanitation workers. Additionally, I believe there should be a rule that prioritises the payment of sanitation workers’ salaries before the salaries of other employees. The salaries of the most marginalised individuals must be given priority. When the government says they have run out of funds, it should be the higher-ranking officials who must feel the pinch, not the poorest of the poor,” emphasises Wilson.

Sanitation workers work as bonded labourers

The plight of sanitation workers is so dire that many of them continue to face exploitation from their contractors and work under conditions similar to bonded labour. “The sanitation workers are exploited a lot,” says Ashok Kumar Taank, Joint Secretary of Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM). “Their salary is deposited into their accounts, but contractors and government servants have created a system where the contractors withdraw the salaries from ATMs. They keep their share and give only a small portion to the sanitation workers. It may be hard to believe, but this is happening in many parts of Delhi.”

Taank further explains, “We conducted a survey in June, covering around 200 contractual sewer workers, and found that these sanitation workers receive varied salaries. The amount they receive usually depends on the contractors’ wishes. They are almost treated like bonded labourers. Due to their lack of education and skills, they continue to suffer in silence.”

He speaks about the struggles faced specifically by Delhi Jal Board (DJB) sanitation workers. “Our demand is that the DJB must directly employ and pay these workers, and they should not receive their salaries through the contractors. More corruption and exploitation is involved when a third party pays the salaries,” says Taank.

All sanitation workers should be regular government employees

Many sanitation workers continue to perform their duties without appropriate protective gear or safety equipment such as suction instruments, jetting machines, hydraulic trolleys, masks, full-body suits, and gas detection devices. The sanitation infrastructure in nearly all Indian cities is outdated. Sheeva Dubey, Assistant Professor at Flame University who has conducted extensive research on sanitation workers in India, states that in order to bring about change, it is crucial to first regularise the work of these workers.

“This raises questions about our morality as we subject a particular community, which has faced generations of oppression based on caste, to such treatment. We are once again engaging them in work without adequately compensating them or granting them the rights they deserve under labour laws. Their dignity is compromised. The solution lies in recognising sanitation work as regular employment rather than on a contractual basis. Sanitation workers carry on with their work even during times of war. Even during the India-Pakistan partition, sanitation workers were instructed to continue their work instead of migrating. This shows how critical their work is. They should have all the rights and benefits that regular salaried workers enjoy, and they should never be paid through contractors who often exploit them,” asserts Dubey.

Also Read | India’s Invisible Domestic Workers: Unregulated, Unrecognised, and Deprived of Social Security

The majority of the sanitation workers in India belong to the SC/ST communities. While these sanitation workers suffer from a whole range of problems, Professor N. Sukumar from the Department of Political Science at Delhi University explains that at the heart of the problem is caste discrimination. 

“Around 99 percent of sanitation workers belong to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, representing the most marginalised backgrounds. For generations, their ancestors have been engaged in the same job of cleaning sewers and manholes, collection of garbage and keeping our neighbourhoods clean. Despite constitutional guarantees of equality and the presence of various laws, true change cannot be realised until there is a shift in people’s mindset. Advocates like Bezwada Wilson have tirelessly fought for the rights of these workers, but the question is: why hasn’t the government taken any significant action? There have been no visible deadlines set by the government to eradicate manual scavenging, regularise workers, or introduce scientific interventions. Resolving this issue requires political will, government action, and a change in societal mindset towards these workers whose rights are consistently violated,” notes Prof. Sukumar.

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