Practical Action: Large study in Bangladesh reveals poor conditions of waste workers

Practical Action: Large study in Bangladesh reveals poor conditions of waste workers

Waste collectors make their living from the things we throw away; rubbish to us is survival to them. However, a large national study carried out by Practical Action in city corporations and municipalities across Bangladesh has revealed appalling working conditions for waste and sanitation workers. While being responsible for almost all the recycling and recovery of waste in the country, they pay a high price in their own health, dignity, and opportunity to engage with the rest of society. There are systematic ways in which women face further discrimination and risks of violence. Workers are doing their best to organize themselves, but these efforts need to be supported and strengthened.

As part of work to our ‘Dignifying Lives’ programme supported by the European Union, we interviewed nearly 400 waste and sanitation workers in both City Corporations and municipalities, as well as hearing first hand from workers during focus group discussions.

Some of the findings were stark. 44 per cent say their work puts them at risk of injury, and two fifths (42 per cent) said they find themselves unable to work at times because of frequent illness. Only 12 per cent said they had been issued with safety equipment, and even fewer wore personal protective items such as gloves (5 per cent) or boots (3 per cent). This was partly because the equipment was difficult and uncomfortable to wear and made the work harder.

Some health risks were made worse by a lack of access to safe water and sanitation facilities. Without a place to wash their hands with soap, or to sit and rest for lunch, they often eat without being able to wash first. They can also suffer from lack of access to a toilet. One woman said

‘We are working from 10 p.m. at night to 1 a.m. At this hour, all the shops and malls are closed. There is nowhere for us to relieve ourselves.’

Despite the enormous value these workers provide in helping to keep the country’s towns and cities clean, and to recycle waste, they suffer from very high levels of discrimination and abuse. An extraordinary 98 per cent of male workers in the city said they had experienced disrespect or abuse through the behaviours and attitudes of the general public. The effects of this discrimination extend to their personal lives, as they can be excluded from sharing freely in food and drinks at social gatherings, and it can be hard to find marriage partners for their children. Workers talk about not being allowed inside restaurants, being automatically blamed for petty crimes such as theft, and having to struggle to be included on voting lists. If they try to start their own businesses, customers will not come.

Women may be at particular risk of abuse, and they can find themselves in risky situations with working hours starting very early in the morning or very late at night, and sometimes being alone in public spaces. They are also paid far less, on average, than men.

To help address some of these problems, there is a need to address immediate practical problems, as well as broader political and social issues. Practically, more needs to be done by waste and sanitation businesses to promote health and safety among their workers and suppliers. Waste and sanitation workers can also be encouraged to join co-operatives or unions. At the same time, more can be done by Municipalities and national Ministries to ensure the contribution of these workers is recognized and that attitudes change towards them.

Practical Action in Bangladesh is working to support workers to organize, and improve their working conditions. We are working to ensure the contribution that informal sector workers make is well recognized and understood, and that these workers can be empowered. The good news is that thanks to sharing of these findings, key Government Departments have agreed to take action.

This is part of our wider systemic approach to finding ingenious and sustainable solutions, supporting people in poverty to change their world.

We will be attending the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi. Look out for our networking event on Inclusive Waste Management on 12th February (16:30-18:30). Also on 12th February (14:00-16:00) in a session on Protecting Environmental Health in the World’s largest humanitarian settlement


Creating the Working conditions for Health, Dignity and Oppotunity

This policy brief has been produced based on a study titled ‘Waste and Sanitation Workers’ Working Condition, Occupational Health and Safety, Wages, Livelihood and Exclusion’, under the ‘Dignifying Lives: Inclusive approach for socioeconomic empowerment of informal waste and sanitation workers’ project, funded by the European Union. Waste collectors make their living from the things we throw away; rubbish to us is survival to them. However, a large national study carried out in city corporations and municipalities across Bangladesh has revealed appalling working conditions for waste and sanitation workers. While being responsible for almost all the recycling and recovery of waste in the country, they pay a high price in their own health, dignity, and opportunity to engage with the rest of society. There are systematic ways in which women face further discrimination and risks of violence. Workers are doing their best to organize themselves, but these efforts need to be supported and strengthened.

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Article by Practical Action
Photo Credits: Practical Action