At 11PM, in the night between 3rd and 4th October 2021, Faisal Masih and Nadeem Masih, of Metropolitan Corporation Sargodha, suffocated to death in the deep and dirty raw sewage gutter of Sargodha’s Main Road Chungi Number 9. They had been forced to enter and unclog the choked gutters by three Muslim Supervisors of the Municipal Corporation in the middle of a Sunday night, with absolutely zero safety equipment or precautions. This unfortunate tragedy is repeated every few months in one or the other town of Pakistan.
The inhumanity and cruelty of making non-Muslim sanitary workers enter the sewage gutters in 21st century Pakistan would have been objectionable even to the janitors of the 4,500 years old Mohenjo-Daro civilisation. Unwilling to clean their own created filth, the larger Metropolitan Corporations outsource sanitation to Chinese, Spanish and Turk companies, while the smaller ones exploit the local non-Muslims.
Our survey reveals that hundred per cent of the workers who perform this most demeaning, hazardous and disgusting task of entering and clearing the sewage gutters in Pakistan are non-Muslims. Each entry leaves their naked bodies plastered with layers of raw excreta, their lungs filled with poisonous gases and their self-esteem shattered.
The cruel and malicious treatment to non-Muslim janitors begins when the newspaper advertisements explicitly require ‘only non-Muslims’ to apply for the janitorial jobs. Only in 2021, the Government of Sindh placed over 100 such discriminatory newspaper advertisements. The next level of persecution begins when the sanitary workers are either placed on temporary contracts or hired through 3rd party private contractors. Our survey further reveals that there is not a single Municipal Corporation or Cantonment Board in Pakistan that pays the correct minimum legal wage or has provided EOBI, Social Security or medical leave to this destitute category of workers.
How is it that we have continued to unabashedly indulge in this unlawful and discriminatory practice for the past 70 years and held no one accountable for the illegal wages, unsafe conditions and loss of lives of non-Muslim janitors? This tyranny is likely to continue for another one thousand years, unless we implement the following six requirements:
First, apply the universally recognised principle that health and safety is the responsibility of top management and hold those in the highest position of authority i.e. the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary and the Heads of the concerned Municipality or the Cantonment Board accountable for any fatality or harm to workers.
Second, declare that advertising sanitary jobs ‘for non-Muslims only’ is a cognizable offence and a violation of the Constitution.
Third, no person is made to enter a sewage gutter unless arrangements for a full body ‘HAZMAT’ suit, safety harness, rescue ropes, breathing devices, gas testing, rescue personnel, ‘Permit to Work’ and entry/exit procedures have been ensured and implemented.
Fourth, replace manual entry by sewage cleaning mechanical devices as far as possible.
Fifth, pay all sanitary workers twice the amount of applicable minimum wage declared by the government so as to incentivise this hazardous occupation.
Sixth, register every sanitary worker with EOBI and provide social security, medical leave and weekly holidays regardless of the nature of contract.
For 74 long years, the non-Muslim janitors have been exploited, under-paid and treated like slaves. They have been illegally kept in extreme poverty and deprived of their dignity and humanity. They have been made to work in appalling, repulsive and demeaning conditions. All this must come to an end by adopting the above mentioned suggestions. Finally, the non-Muslim janitors deserve a collective apology from the state and citizens of Pakistan for our apathy and silence while they choked, suffocated and died.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2021.