Little protection for sanitation workers during COVID-19 pandemic, finds survey

93% of respondents received no training or special safety instructions to deal with coronavirus

September 08, 2020 02:07 pm | Updated August 19, 2022 10:02 am IST

Message in strokes: A sanitation worker walking past a wall painting being done to honour COVID-19 frontline warriors, in Vijayawada on July 30, 2020.

Message in strokes: A sanitation worker walking past a wall painting being done to honour COVID-19 frontline warriors, in Vijayawada on July 30, 2020.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in India keeps rising, there is one group that has been left particularly vulnerable. A survey conducted in June 2020 on 214 sanitation workers, mainly in Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi NCR and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, found that they have been given little protection during this period.

It claims that around 93% of the 188 Safai Karmacharis from the pool of 214 participants, who replied to the survey and were engaged in work between April-May 2020, received no training or special safety instructions to deal with the virus.

When asked if they received any instructions regarding health check-ups, 93% of the 192 who replied to this query said no. Only one individual said he received a health check-up during the pandemic.

“The sanitation workers have not received adequate protective equipment to safeguard themselves properly. This has led to the death of the Senior Sanitation Supervisor at AIIMS, New Delhi,” said Bezwada Wilson, head of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, in New Delhi

Dismal working conditions

According to the June survey, most of the workers were without the necessary tools, uniforms, emergency kits and health insurance even before the onset of the pandemic.

When it did hit, only 30.7% of respondents received masks, 22.4% received gloves, 31.1% received soaps, and just 18.9% received sanitisers. The rest “either did not get these things at all or got them in insufficient quantities or of poor quality”.

On being asked whether they received any instructions on being tested COVID-19 positive, 93.2% of the 191 respondents to this query said they got no such instructions.

Only 8 participants were assured of job security and eight others were promised free treatment in case of any health emergencies.

Of the 57 working women participants, 55 reported that no special arrangement was done for them at work. Only one woman participant shared that her employer had offered her paid leave during lockdown. Another woman participant said that her employer was offering concessions at work for pregnant workers.

“Even after demanding proper protective gear and assistance in dealing with the coronavirus, we have been told to keep our head down and go about our work. Otherwise, we will not get our wages,” said a sanitation worker from Delhi who did not wish to be named.

On being asked if they received any government assistance regarding salary, job security, health insurance or free treatment during the pandemic, 182 of 208 (87.5%) respondents to this query replied in the negative.

Contractual workers

Over the years, sanitation jobs have become increasingly contractualised. According to the June report, 117 of the 214 participants (54.7%) were hired on contract, while only 80 participants (37.4%) were government employees.

It goes on to explain that much of the wet-waste management done in cities without proper tools has come under scrutiny due to increased pressure on the government to end the practice of manual scavenging.

This has facilitated the transfer of such work from the government domain to the realm of contractual employment. The report claims this is a method adopted by the governments to shrug off responsibility.

A contractual worker, Mahesh (name changed), in Maharashtra’s Thane district told The Hindu that being a contractual worker means being at risk.

“During the ongoing pandemic, I have received only one pair of gloves, made up of cheap material. I take it back home every day. Sometimes, my kids touch it, and my wife washes my gloves. Thus, my job entails putting my entire family at risk,” he said.

Another worker from Maharashtra’s Dhule district said: “We have to buy masks and sanitisers with our own money. We are not provided with any information on the virus, nor did the employer get our tests done .”

“They just know how to get (the) work done from us, and if we don’t work on Sundays, we don’t get wages for that day. I have not received any payment for the last two months,” he complained.

The June survey confirms that 71.1% contractual employees, as against 62% government employees, worked without masks. 81.9% of contractual employees worked without gloves, compared to 71.4% of government employees.

94.1% contractual employees, as against 91% government employees, were not assured health check-ups. 96.6% of contractual employees reported not getting any assurance from the government, as against 74.7% of government employees.

“Still, we have to keep working, to feed ourselves and our family. Our lives are spent hoping the situation will become better, but even that flicker of hope is dying down now,” expressed Mahesh, who was hospitalised with fever during the pandemic and did not get paid for the entire duration he was absent from work. He had contracted coronavirus.

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