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A Pakistani Christistian family in Karachi following an online prayer service during the Covid-19 lockdown. A Pakistani Christistian family in Karachi following an online prayer service during the Covid-19 lockdown.   (ANSA)

Pakistan’s “dirty job” workers at high risk of Covid-19

In Pakistan, about 95% of the workers involved in cleaning and sanitizing roads, hospitals, schools, sewers and public institutions belong to religious minorities, mostly Christian and Hindu.

By Robin Gomes

According to International Christian Concern (ICC), a non-governmental organization, Pakistan’s Christians fill between 80% to 90% of the country’s sweeper and dirty jobs, including clearing sewers that involve serious health hazards.  

It says this percentage is an extreme over-representation as Pakistani Christians make up less than 2% of the country’s overall population.

In many cases, says the Washington DC-based NGO, advertisements for these dirty and hazardous jobs, considered the lowest and filthiest, are reserved for non-Muslim applicants only.

Hence, descendants of lower-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity centuries ago, still find themselves marginalized, relegated to dirty jobs and grim fates.

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops' Conference, "This is a double standard and discriminatory treatment reserved for religious minorities".

These workers also collect contaminated waste in hospital quarantine wards across the country and are almost always without any protective equipment at work. 

Supreme Court ruling

In a ruling on April 13, the Supreme Court of Pakistan noted "the conditions of the staff involved in sanitation in hospitals and other places" and ordered that they "receive the necessary protection". However, the ground situation is a different story altogether. 

“We urge a quick response from the authorities to deal with the situation,” Samuel Piyara, president of the Forum for the implementation of minority rights, told the Vatican’s Fides news agency, referring to the Supreme Court ruling. 

Shahid Mushtaq Asi, president of the Union of Ecological Operators said that authorities have not provided disinfectants and gloves to these workers, none of whom have been tested for Covid-19. “The Supreme Court verdict,” he lamented, “is not respected."

Fate of sewage workers and families

Municipalities across Pakistan rely heavily on Christian cleaners to keep their sewers flowing.  

In the country’s largest city Karachi, these cleaners keep the sewer system flowing, using their bare hands to unclog crumbling drainpipes of faeces, plastic bags and hazardous hospital refuse, part of the 1,750 million litres of waste the city’s 20 million residents generate daily.  

Many of them spend hours inside manholes. Almost all of them develop skin diseases and respiratory problems because of constant contact with the sludge, sewage and toxic fumes. For many, the job has been fatal.

Back home, they live in rundown, unhygienic neighbourhoods without safe drinking water and schools. 

While most doing the dirty job are illiterate, they have been trying to give their children a better future by sending them to school. But discrimination and lack of opportunities to compete with others force these children to fall back on the jobs of their parents.

“I am very worried about them,” Father Saleh Diego, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Karachi and diocesan director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, told Asia News. 

"We see them in the streets without masks or gloves. They clean toilets, empty pits and septic tanks, clear sewers and manholes.”

“Sanitation workers,” he said, “are the most neglected and marginalized group in our society.”

06 May 2020, 15:57