On World Toilet Day, UN Highlights Plight of Sanitation Workers
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The UN has released a joint agency report highlighting the value of sanitation work and the health risks that sanitation workers experience in many developing countries, while providing society with an essential public health service.

Welcoming the report, UN Special Rapporteur Léo Heller called on governments to substantially increase the sanitation workforce and offer dignified and safe conditions, so as to meet their commitments under the 2030 Agenda to provide safely managed sanitation services (SDG indicator 6.2.1), as well as decent work for all (SDG target 8.5).

The UN has released a joint agency report profiling the labor conditions of sanitation workers globally. The International Labour Organization (ILO), WaterAid, World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO) called the assessment the most extensive global study on this issue to date. The report was released ahead of World Toilet Day on 19 November. 

Titled, ‘Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment,’ the report highlights the value of sanitation work, and the health risks that sanitation workers experience in many developing countries, while providing society with an essential public health service. It presents nine case studies of sanitation workers in low- and middle-income countries, whose work involves emptying pits and tanks, transporting fecal sludge and performing sewer maintenance. 

The report finds that sanitation workers face high occupational health risks, weak legal protections, financial insecurity stemming from the informal and low-paid nature of their work, and social stigma. In Mumbai, India, for example, the authors cite an average of 25 sanitation worker deaths per month within a three-year period, a figure thought to be conservative in view of unreported incidents and other factors.

The 46-page report urges governments and development partners to: reform policy, legislation and regulation around sanitation services; develop and adopt operational guidelines for workers; advocate for the human rights of sanitation workers and empower them to claim their rights; and strengthen evidence on the status of sanitation work. It provides examples of good practice, such as encouraging unionization, and providing healthcare services to sanitation workers.

Maria Neira, WHO, noted that sanitation workers make a key contribution to public health around the world, and stressed that “it is unacceptable” that they put their own health at risk to do so. Welcoming the report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Léo Heller, called on governments to substantially increase the sanitation workforce and offer dignified and safe conditions, so as to meet their commitments under the 2030 Agenda to provide safely managed sanitation services (SDG indicator 6.2.1), as well as decent work for all (SDG target 8.5). He called for sanitation workers to be accorded “the social recognition they deserve and the safe and dignified working conditions they need,” including protection against infections, cuts and abrasions, and exposure to hazardous gases and chemicals. 

The UN marks World Toilet Day annually on 19 November. UN-Water coordinates the Day, which focused on the theme ‘Leaving No One Behind.’ A World Toilet Day fact sheet warns that the world is not on track to achieve SDG 6, as 4.2 billion people still live without safely managed sanitation – meaning the use of hygienic toilet facilities not shared with other households, separation of excreta from human contact, and safe disposal and treatment of excreta. Estimates suggest that, for every US$1 invested on basic sanitation, an average of US$2.50 is returned  in saved medical costs and increased productivity in urban areas, while US$5 is returned from rural areas. [UN-Water Report Web Page] [World Toilet Day]


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