The Stinking Life

Humans working – and dying - inside stinking and poisonous manholes
is a common occurrence in Pakistan. However, people have grown
indifferent to the plight of sanitary workers.

By Parvez Rahim | February 2020

Life would become miserable if the road outside your house was inundated with filthy gutter slush or there is a constant foul smell emanating from it or there are huge piles of garbage all around and it is difficult for you to breath. You would have many sleepless nights and a persistent headache.

The persons who provide you relief from such ordeals and facilitate in letting people live in a stench-free, environment are themselves the most marginalized, overlooked and ill-treated workforce You are not even aware of their work. But you must accept that no other person can either do or be willing to do the work they do at any cost.

The sanitary workers all over Pakistan are the most neglected and exploited class of society. They work in pathetic conditions at low wages and there is hazardous impact on their health at all times. Legislators may have brought the agriculture and construction workers within the ambit of labour laws, but they have so far ignored the sanitary workers. This neglect may be judged from the fact that the National Sanitation Policy, 2016 and the Sindh National Policy, 2017 do not mention sanitary workers.

Extending labour laws formally to sanitary workers will not be enough as the respective provincial governments will have to ensure that these are implemented in letter and spirit such as providing them the required safety equipment like gas masks, uniforms, safety kits, gloves and boots, etc. These workers face a fatality risk that is 10 times higher than workers in all other industries. Their misery is compounded by the outdated civic infrastructure and poor attention to workplace safety, discrimination and negative social attitudes against the profession.

Entering the sewage pipes through manholes with bare bodies and remaining there till the material causing the blockage, is removed and thrown out, has been an old practice of the sanitary workers. Such hazardous entry into the filthy tunnels sometimes exposes them to lethal gases or bites from poisonous insects, causing their death. Young Rafiq Masih died in August 2019, when he was cleaning a storm water drain in Landhi, Karachi, while his colleagues fell unconscious from inhaling toxic fumes. Earlier, in 2017, another young man Irfan Masih died tragically at the Umerkot Civil Hospital, after inhaling poisonous fumes. The doctors had refused to provide him treatment because he was considered ‘unclean’.

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The writer is an industrial relations professional and also teaches at the IBA. He can be reached at

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