Abandoned At The Frontline: India’s Sanitation Workers Seek Immediate Help From The Government Amidst COVID-19

Amnesty International India
24 April 2020 7:33 pm

India’s Sanitation Workers seek immediate help from the government, as they fight for better safety gears and equal treatment. Sign the appeal to urge the government to ensure their dignity and protection. 

You can read this blog in Hindi or Tamil too. 

COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented crisis that has affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world. People from economically weaker backgrounds are disproportionately affected, particularly in countries like India. In many countries, governments are scrambling to find ways to tackle the immediate health crisis, while also trying to set up a robust public health system – weakened by years of neglect and lack of funding.

At the frontline of this fight against COVID-19 in India are thousands of health care professionals and workers. However, for the sanitation workers among them, a sense of abandonment prevails as both Central and State governments focus on providing safety and precautionary measures to the more visible and acknowledged groups of first respondents – namely the doctors, nurses and auxiliary medical staff. While it is important that health workers have the necessary protective equipment, most sanitation workers we spoke to, who are also at risk of infection due to the nature of their work, feel that their safety and welfare are mostly an afterthought for all governments.

This neglect always existed, even historically, because we are Dalits“, says one worker. “No one is bothered about the unhygienic and undignified working conditions we have to bear. Today, in the time of pandemic, this indifference continues. We should never have to touch waste with our hands. However, while earlier we had to fight for gloves, raincoats, gumboots, today, we have to fight for PPE kits”, he adds. This is despite having to handle hospital waste, as well as care for affected patients.

Estimates point to nearly 5 million sanitation workers in India, most of whom belong to Dalit communities. Several of them either work as municipal solid waste collectors (commonly known as Safai Karamcharis) or as faecal sludge cleaners (engaged in cleaning sewers, septic tank etc. and widely known as Manual scavengers).

There is no doubt about the great work that doctors, nurses and the police are doing in these tough times. They are the frontline workers. So are we. The safai kaamgaar (sanitation workers) are working to keep India clean, thus safe. But there is one difference. Doctors, nurses, police [personnel] have people from all communities and religions – across class and caste. Safai Kaamgaar are Dalits! How many upper caste people do you see carrying waste or human faeces? We have never had any facilities – nor provisions. We are born in such a life – we will die in such a life, with no one to question on our behalf.” – Dadarao Patekar, Sanitation Worker; Vice President of Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, KVSS.



The sanitation workers, 50% of them being migrants according to organisations we spoke to – were not among those who left the cities urgently in an attempt to return to their homes as lockdown measures threatened their livelihoods. Their work (not including those workers who are engaged in sewage/ drain cleaning etc.), like that of health-care workers, has not stopped.

We spoke to workers and organisations working with sanitation workers in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to understand the particular challenges they face in the COVID-19 context. Sanitation workers at hospitals run the risk of infections from patients, while those collecting municipal solid waste are at risk from handling unmarked medical waste from quarantined homes.

In general, the neglect for both permanent and contract workers manifested in one or more of the following ways:

  • Inadequate provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including face masks, hand gloves, apron, shoes, head cover etc. along with soap/sanitiser across all workers. This is contrary to Central government Guidelines on disinfection of common public places including offices and Guidelines on rational use of Personal Protective Equipment.
  • No uniformity in health insurance and medical benefits, if provided.
  • No uniformity in payment across permanent and contract workers as well as additional compensation for COVID-19 related work.
  • Overtime with no consistency in extra pay, if given.
  • Difficulty in accessing transport for early morning reporting for duty, as public transport remains suspended.
  • The workers who are forced to do manual scavenging mostly through informal contract labour are not getting any work at this time.

In response to a plea filed by social activist Harnam Singh, the Central government told the Supreme Court on 15 April, that sanitation workers in the country are being provided with requisite protective kits following guidelines by World Health Organisation on the coronavirus pandemic. Such response is in absolute contradiction to what the workers themselves have to say.

In Mumbai, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) has instructed that sanitation workers should work on a rotational basis with only 50% staff at work at any given time till the lockdown is in force. It has also announced an additional payment of Rs. 300/- per day as compensation for transportation and food expenses. BMC however, is silent on these provisions for contract workers. “They call us to work every alternate day. But we are unsure if they will pay us for the non-work days in between” shared Baburao (name changed), a contract worker, pointing to another anomaly faced by millions of contract workers in India.

Baburao, who is posted in a hospital treating COVID-19 patients in Chembur, Mumbai, adds “We were asked to wash and re-use suits for the first two days. Only when we refused to work, were we provided with PPE”.  

“We work hand in hand with the permanent workers for the safety of all. While it is not a comparison between permanent and contract workers; it is a question of safety for all. When corona comes, it will not discriminate between permanent or contract worker, adds Dadarao Patekar.

In Karnataka, a sanitation worker in Pavagada Municipal Corporation, Tumkur district, was issued a ‘show cause notice’ for disciplinary action. Reason? He had demanded protective gear as per the directives provided by the Department of Municipal Administration (DMA).

Dr K.B. Obalesha, Founder Secretary, Thamate & State Convenor Safai Karmachari Kavulu Samithi (SKSS)-Karnataka, says that in general, sanitation workers of Karnataka are unable to access health care benefits through Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) Corporation hospitals. The local bodies have not remitted the employee and employer contribution towards the ESI accounts, which are part of the self-financing social security and health insurance scheme for workers, because of which the workers do not have new/ renewed ESI cards. In the present situation, if faced with COVID-19 related treatment, it would be difficult for them to access ESI hospitals, he added.

The sanitation workers involved in faecal sludge cleaning (sewers, septic tank etc.) now do not have work in the lockdown. Being migrant labourers, they do not have ration and Aadhar card of Karnataka and hence are unable to access provisions provided by the State, according to Dr. Obalesha.

The workers in Palamedu area, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, told Amnesty International that they got their full PPE only when they showed photos of workers from Nagercoil Municipal Corporation, who received such kits. Some of them who were engaged in disinfectant spraying told us that they have developed skin rashes on their bodies. They were not provided with PPE.

On average, based on the interviews we conducted, the workers work for an extra 2 hours every day for seven days a week, without leave.


sanitation-workers-womenPhoto credit: Reuters

About 50% of urban sanitation workers are women, mostly engaged in municipal solid waste collection, sweeping of roads and school toilet cleaning. According to the women workers we spoke to, some of the occupational hazards that women faced in pre-COVID times are differential wages, unsafe working environment, lack of protective gear, specific health issues because of inaccessible toilets in urban areas, non-payment of salary during maternity leave, among other issues. In addition to the pre-COVID challenges, the current extra work in new areas, means that women workers have to walk for long stretches in the early hours, in the absence of public transportation. Some women workers near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, shared having faced sexual harassment at the new work area assigned to them. They raised the issue with their superiors, who reprimanded the men, according to the women workers.

With the schools and neighbourhoods forced to shut, women workers we spoke to shared their concern about having to leave their children at home without adult supervision, while they are at work. They also feared passing the infection to their children.

Highlighting the differential payments for women workers, Uma, from the Institute of Development Education, Action and Studies (IDEAS), Madurai, adds,

“While all panchayats do not pay for the additional disinfectant work, the panchayats that pay, do so differently for women who are paid Rs. 250/- per day, as compared to men who are paid Rs. 500/- per day.”



Organising workers today in the times of lockdown is a challenge. According to Milind Ranade, Founder & General Secretary, Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS), “the last 20 years has seen a steady increase in numbers of contractual workers performing work that is perennial and statutory. The Dalit and migrant status of contract workers makes them more vulnerable to exploitation”.

“It is because of several years of struggle and unionising, that 6,500 contract workers associated with the KVSS are able to obtain the minimum wage”, adds Dadarao Patekar.  

As per a report by World Bank, ILO, WaterAid, and WHO. 2019, the basic working conditions of permanent workers are somewhat protected by laws. However, the high risk and undesirable jobs get subcontracted to informal workers, ie. contract and casual, who have weak or no legal protection. As per the report, the Casual workers get paid three time less than permanent workers. The multiple layers of subcontracting drown the contract and casual workers’ voices.

Ranade sums this up as “The ease of business is nothing but the ease of exploitation”.



The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package announced by Central government in the first phase of lockdown on 26 March, provides for COVID-19 related death insurance of 50 lakh for ninety days to health care workers, including sanitation staff working at hospitals. The scheme, however, does not clarify whether it extends to contract workers on duty at hospitals. It also leaves out any benefits for those who collect solid waste from cities and towns, including quarantine areas.

Tamil Nadu, on 24 March was one of the first to announce one month of special pay to frontline health workers including sanitation workers at hospitals. Delhi, on 2 Apr, announced one crore insurance cover for COVID-19 related death of health care and sanitation workers.

Punjab, on 4 April announced a special health insurance cover of 50 lakhs for police and sanitation workers. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) on 17 April, announced a compensation of 10 lacs for COVID-19 related death, for MCGM staff including contract workers, not covered under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package.


All workers have the right to just and favourable conditions of work as enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which has been ratified by India. This includes the right to fair wages, equal pay for work of equal value, safe and healthy working conditions, reasonable limitations on working hours, protections for workers during and after pregnancy, and equality of treatment in employment.

Central and State governments must acknowledge the contribution of India’s sanitation workers and roll out the following measures immediately:

  • All sanitation workers are treated as essential workers and have equal access to available protective equipment, relief and rehabilitation. Ensure that good quality and adequate quantity of full PPE kit to both contractual and permanent sanitation workers including women sanitation workers is provided.
  • Ensure that the contractors and local administration are held accountable for non-compliance and non-adherence to adequate and quality supply of PPE kits.
  • Ensure equal and adequate financial compensation for all sanitation workers, regardless of terms of employment, for all COVID-19 related work.
  • Ensure safety of all workers especially women workers from abuse, discrimination and other forms of violence at the work place.
  • Provide adequate care and protection for children of sanitation workers as they continue to carry out essential work during the lockdown.
  • Ensure that sanitation workers have access to sufficient and safe water, food, sanitation and other facilities necessary to protect themselves from infection at their places of work.
  • Ensure that sanitation workers are provided with transport facilities to allow them to travel to and from work.
  • Ensure that sanitation workers have access to weekly rest days and employ additional staff as required.
  • Take all necessary steps to ensure that sanitation workers can access the existing ESI health care schemes.
  • Ensure that all sanitation workers, including permanent and contractual, are covered under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package.
  • Ensure that sanitation workers have access to regular health screening, and accessible and affordable health services. The inability to pay must not be a barrier to accessing health care and treatment.

This pandemic has exposed many fault lines in our societies. But it has also offered us a time to pause, reflect and make amends where necessary.

Dadarao Patekar points out the obvious, “Corona or no corona, if the Safai Kaamgaar stop work, dirt will pile up, people will contract infections, and many may even die. We are the invisible workforce that keeps your cities and hospitals clean. This work is nobody’s first choice. We are in this because of historical injustices, and we are stuck in this because we have no other means to feed our families”.

We as a society, have for far too long chosen to ignore the sanitation workers and their work conditions. We should stop assuming that human labour will always be readily and mutely available for service. Safety and dignity at the workplace is as much a right of the sanitation workers as it is of everyone else. Therefore, these demands placed by the sanitation workers must be urgently met. We must also fight for the rights of sanitation workers to be upheld beyond the pandemic.


Written by Reena Tete and Rajakumari M

Reena Tete leads the Gender and Identity-based Violence programme and Rajakumari M. leads the Human Rights Education programme at Indians for Amnesty International Trust (Amnesty International India). 

With inputs from sanitation workers and staff associated with Action Initiative for Development (AID), Institute of Development Education, Action and Studies (IDEAS), Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh (KVSS), Thamate (Centre for Rural Empowerment) and WAYVE Foundation.