SHC asks labour dept to explain measures being taken for health, safety of sanitary workers

Jamal Khurshid
Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

The Sindh High Court (SHC) on Wednesday directed a provincial law officer as well as an officer of the Sindh labour department to file a statement with regard to measures being taken for health and safety of sanitary workers in the province.

The direction came on a petition seeking the implementation of the minimum wages law for all the sanitation workers employed by the local government department and Sindh Solid Waste Management Board (SSWMB).

An additional advocate general submitted a notification of the Sindh government issued on July 7, 2022, which said that the minimum wage of Rs25,000 had been implemented across the province. He sought more time to file a report if any particular entity was not implementing the said notification.

An SSWMB assistant director filed a statement submitting that the board had also issued a direction to the all front end collections (FEC), middle end collections (MEC) and landfill sites contractors to ensure rigid compliance with the government notification with regard to the implementation of minimum wages.

The petitioners also filed a statement with a draft copy of standard operating procedure (SOP) detailing measures for safety and health of sanitary workers working across the province as well as recommendations for making improvements in this regard. The law and labour officers sought time to file a reply on the SOP filed by the petitioners. A division bench of the high court headed by Justice Mohammad Iqbal Kalhoro directed the law officer and labour department file a report with regard to measures being taken for health and safety of the sanitary workers for further proceedings.

Naeem Sadiq and others had said in their petition that sanitation workers employed by the local government bodies across the province were currently being paid well below the minimum wages. They said that many sanitation workers employed by the union councils and SSWMB, either directly or through a contractor, were not only being paid well below the minimum wages but they also got no benefits whatsoever, and they could be fired at will.

The petitioners added that sanitation workers had to handle toxic pollutants, noxious substances, and hazardous biological and chemical agents in the course of their work, making them vulnerable to health risks, and they were also required to climb down sewerage drains, where they are immersed in waste and exposed to poisonous substances.

They pointed out that the World Health Organisation and World Bank had recommended the governments to adopt laws and policies that guaranteed occupational health and safety for sanitation workers, including the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

However, they lamented, sanitation workers across the province were not provided with any protective gear and they had to completely expose themselves to hazardous substances. The petitioners said sanitation workers were forced to carry out their responsibilities, including the cleaning of gutters and drains, without safety equipment.

They pointed out that members of religious minorities were specifically recruited to perform these tasks, thus increasing the ostracisation of minorities in society.

They said sanitation workers frequently died in the course of performing their duties due to the absence of protective gear and safety protocols, while they received no health care or compensation from their employers in case of injuries or death.

They highlighted the Constitution’s articles 9 and 25 that required sanitation workers employed by the government bodies across Sindh be entitled to at least the minimum legal wages, saying that sanitation workers had a right to livelihood and equality under the law.

The petitioners’ counsel, Sara Malkani, said sanitation workers were entitled to the minimum wages whether they were directly employed by the local government department, SSWMB or through contractors providing services on behalf of the department. The counsel added that the government must ensure that the private contractors were complying with the labour laws.

She requested the high court to declare that all sanitation workers employed by the municipal bodies and SSWMB across the province were entitled to the currently applicable minimum wage stipulated in accordance with the Sindh Minimum Wages Act 2015.

She also requested the SHC to direct the government to compensate the sanitation workers who had been deprived of their minimum wages by paying them their wages from the date of their initial employment to the extent for the amount that was unlawfully denied, and to ensure that all the sanitation workers were provided PPE.