We Surveyed 206 Women Sanitation Workers And The Situation Is Far Worse Than You’d Imagine

We Surveyed 206 Women Sanitation Workers And The Situation Is Far Worse Than You’d Imagine

The inescapable link between occupation and caste, especially the unhappy marriage between sanitation work and Dalit communities, continues to take different forms in India. Along with earmarking sanitation work as the sole concern of the Valmiki community, an even more jarring vulnerability appears on disaggregating the community by gender.
Contemporary practices continue to be shaped by rigid histories of caste and gender discrimination, and Valmiki women sanitation workers stand at the most vulnerable intersection between patriarchy and casteism.
We conducted a participatory study of 206 women sanitation workers across three cities in India, Jhansi, Ajmer and Muzaffarpur, to unearth their experiences, current living conditions and the associated problems. We investigated the women’s working conditions, over 70% of whom were contractual/outsourced workers, through multiple aspects of employment conditions and caste discrimination.
Our study revealed that over 90% of the women workers lack protective gears and those who did receive any gear (over 4 years ago), explained that the gears were larger than the standard sizes, which made working difficult. None of the women received formal training before starting their jobs, despite working with non-segregated waste, which includes kitchen waste, sanitary napkins, syringes, broken glass and excreta. Their workplaces don’t have medical kits to respond to accidents.
Over 60% of the women reported experiencing skin, throat and eye infections, injuries, and thigh allergies, due to the excessive physical exertion during menstruation. Nearly all women experience varying degrees of depression, stress and anxiety on a daily basis and are addicted to chewing tobacco to bear the stench at work.
To make matters worse, many of the workers, especially contractual and outsourced workers, are forced to deal with the complete lack of formal employment benefits such as Employee Provident Fund, medical leaves/insurance, pension, weekly offs, and maternity leave. While permanent workers enjoy a few of these perks, contractual and outsourced workers barely earn between Rs. 5,000 and 10,000 a month. Women are excluded from unions and are only called for meetings to gather a crowd, thus limiting collectivization. There are no formal complaint redressal mechanisms to report violence or grievances.
Women sanitation workers are doubly disadvantaged, because life at home is as exploitative and abusive as life at work. Many face domestic violence, as a result of alcoholism that plagues Valmiki communities – a by-product of alcohol consumption by male sanitation workers, to be able to do their jobs around drains and sewers. Till date, some men are still working as manual scavengers.
Over 60% of the women sanitation workers have experienced touch-based discrimination daily, in terms of where they eat, how they travel to/from work, where they (can) live, if they can visit public places such as temples, or have access to public goods such as water taps. After long hours of work, the porches and front steps of homes used as resting areas by women workers are washed by house owners to ‘purify’ their homes again.
To curb, if not end this systemic violence, we need to build convergence with schemes that intend to empower the Scheduled Caste communities. More importantly, we need to create awareness among women on how to access such provisions.
Another step in the right direction is to make urban local bodies (municipalities) more accountable in terms of skilling sanitation workers to do their work safely, providing them with proper equipment and getting contracts in place, whether they’re permanent, contractual or outsourced workers. In the interest of effectiveness of such a scheme, contractors must be heavily penalized for not extending formal employment benefits to their employees, and so should households that practice improper waste disposal.
Further, a blanket medical insurance for all sanitation workers is crucial, considering the hazardous nature of their jobs. Also, first-aid kits must be made mandatorily available at their workplace.
Finally, constituting internal committees and local committees is indispensable, where women sanitation workers can seek redressal if they face sexual harassment at work. Promoting fair and independent workers’ unions will encourage women sanitation workers to articulate and negotiate demands on their terms.
Interested in learning more? Watch “Littered Dignity”, a film on the everyday lived experiences of women sanitation workers of India.
Source - Yooth Ki Awaaj

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