The links between caste and hazardous forms of sanitation work were highlighted by speakers at the Sanitation Workers Forum 2021 from 29 November – 2 December. Participants at the forum urged that immediate steps are taken to ensure the safety and dignity of millions of sanitation workers worldwide – and ensure social protections.

Manual scavenging – workers burning their baskets in protest

Joining together for a four-day virtual event, organisers, speakers and participants engaged to close knowledge gaps about sanitation work, devise effective interventions and implement health and safety practices.

The first keynote speaker, Bezwada Wilson, a founder of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) in India, discussed the linkages between caste and manual scavenging and stressed the need for manual scavengers’ voices to be heard. He urged participants to show not only the dark and depressing side of sanitation work but to elevate the ‘positive and personal voices’ of the workers themselves. Dalit representation is essential. He also discussed how we bring together a global community to address the rights of sanitation workers.

The second keynote session was delivered by Mary James Gill, Head of the Center for Law and Justice in Pakistan and co-founder of the Sweepers are Superheroes movement, which aims to raise awareness of sewer and waste workers’ dignity, safety, and social protection. She discussed how the phenomenon of sanitation work is not as clearly caste-based in Pakistan but is still underpinned by caste. She also stressed the need for international solidarity for these workers in a country where their plight receives little to no attention.

Other sessions discussed the intersectionality between caste and gender, deep dives into labour rights and best practices and how the sector has changed as a result of COVID-19. Almost every session was recorded, so if you would like to listen again, or listen for the first time you will be able to do so for three months through the Whova platform. You can also follow up with people who attended the event through in-app messages, e-business card requests, and Community posts.

The living and working conditions of sanitation workers and manual scavengers are being taken up by more research, policy and best practice agendas. However, despite this recognition, dangerous and demeaning types of sanitation worker continue to be practiced. Sanitation workers and manual scavengers are frequently discriminated against, subject to social stigma, exposed to health risks and paid sporadically (if at all) – all with insufficient protective equipment.

The forum, organised with support from partners such as WaterAid, ILO, SNV, World Bank, WHO, brought activists, researchers, labour unions, policy makers and institutions together to address these challenges and demand increased resources to promote decent work, alternative skill development and improved conditions.

The event with over 250 attendees and 69 speakers from India, Pakistan, Madagascar, Nepal, Kenya, Senegal, Burkina Faso, USA, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire and Bangladesh, was designed to share knowledge and good practices about sanitation workers globally; build a community of practice around the topic which puts sanitation workers representatives at the forefront, alongside activists, policymakers, practitioners, students and academics; and discuss and prioritise future areas of research, policy and practice.

Listen to the speakers on the Sanitation Workers Forum 2021: Linking Research, Policy and Practice (Note: requires free sign-up to Whova and expires on 28 February)