By Feenzu Sherpa

Sanitation workers are an equally important part of a city’s infrastructure as frontline workers but are rarely recognized for contributing to development and the betterment of society.

In the Kathmandu Valley, more than a thousand sanitation workers are deployed for garbage disposal, sewage management, and the upkeep of public toilets, but they work without proper gear, such as gloves and masks. Sanitation workers are mostly underappreciated for what they do, and their rights are often neglected. People look towards them in a humiliating way, and the employment facilities provided to them meet only the bare minimum.

Sanitation workers deployed in public toilet cleaning and maintenance lack adequate personal protective equipment, support to cope with risks, job security, health insurance, and access to supplies and resources to maintain their own personal hygiene. Understanding the importance of the role of sanitation workers and upholding their rights is critical to paving the way for inclusive and dignified sanitation in Nepal.

As per a field survey conducted by WaterAid Nepal and GUTHI, nonprofit organizations that work in areas of water and sanitation, there are only 35 public toilets in Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Among these 35 toilets, only a few are operational. Public toilets are generally unpleasant, but they must be maintained to a minimum degree of hygiene so that people have somewhere to go in an emergency situation. Yet, in the Kathmandu Valley, most public toilets are unusable due to a lack of regular maintenance and cleaning, leaving the facilities with an awful stench and unhygienic conditions.

Image: Feenzu Sherpa / Aawaaj News

Image: Feenzu Sherpa / Aawaaj News

Usha Bishwakarma, 42, a cleaner employed by Kathmandu Metropolitan City, said that she has received some training regarding sanitation work, mostly from programs organized by nonprofit organizations for government cleaners. She is currently responsible for a free public toilet, but the condition of the toilet is miserable due to damaged infrastructure and a terrible smell.

When asked about this, she explained that the government does not provide an adequate amount of cleaning products needed to do her job, saying, “The toilet is free and hence not many expenses are done to make the toilet better. We get limited supply to clean toilet so mostly we have to clean the toilets just with water.”

When asked about gloves and mask provisions, she stated that she did not have soap and water to maintain her own personal hygiene after cleaning the toilet, let alone other things.

Beyond the lack of necessary cleaning supplies, the government-employed cleaners are tasked with many more responsibilities than just looking after and cleaning public toilets.

Usha said, “I have to clean the surrounding area and also the toilet. As it is a free toilet, anyone can use it, meaning drunk people and drug abusers also use it, making the toilet extremely dirty. It is just not possible to clean the toilet so many times.” She added, “I am used to the behavior of people who use the toilet and then get scolded for the lack of sanitation and improper infrastructure of the toilet.”

Sanitation workers face risks to their own health and safety to earn an average salary of Rs 15,000 a month. While he was leading the nation, the former Prime Minister of Nepal, KP Oli, had promised that every sanitation worker would get life insurance and other benefits, but that promise was never fulfilled.

While government-employed workers have job security and a Provident Fund, private cleaners have it worse.

Privately operated public toilets are slightly cleaner than free public toilets but the cleaners neither have benefits nor the understanding of why they should have health insurance. They are not even taught about the practices of safe waste management.

Kishan Deula, 26, looks after a privately operated public toilet in the Pashupati area, which is provided through tender by Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT). He said that the cleaning products are bought by the operators for regular cleaning but, similar to government cleaners, they are not provided with any protective gear.

“We don’t get any training we just have to keep the toilet clean,” said Deula. “Unlike other public toilets, privately operated toilets are inspected by authorities from time to time so we just have to do our job and try to keep the toilet as clean as possible.”

Whether government-appointed or privately employed, all cleaners share the experience of getting scolded by people who use public toilet facilities.

“We are almost always taunted by the people when they have to pay money to use the toilet. People say that public toilets should take no money, but you can see the difference between free toilets and toilets like ours (privately operated public toilets),” laments Kishan.

A public toilet in the Pashupati area of Kathmandu (Image: Feenzu Sherpa / Aawaaj News)

A public toilet in the Pashupati area of Kathmandu (Image: Feenzu Sherpa / Aawaaj News)

Health risks and job risks are not the only issues sanitation workers have to deal with. The cleaners also have to face the stigma and humiliation associated with cleaning toilets and touching others’ excreted waste.

“I don’t have a good education to get other reputable jobs, but I do everything so that my two daughters can receive a good education,” Kishan lamented. “I feel bad when my daughters say that they get teased in school by their friends when they know what I do for work.”

Many sanitation workers belong to the supposed “lower caste” and deal with the associated societal stigma in their daily life, compounding the stress and frustration of their profession.

“It is just that if they know about my job and my caste as well, they just give a reaction like it automatically makes sense that my job suits me because of my caste and I feel bad about that,” said Usha Bishwakarma.

Similarly, in Thankot, a toilet caretaker named Birendra Pode has changed his name to Birendra Deula because he faced immense stigma when using his original surname.

A toilet caretaker named Birendra Pode has changed his name to Birendra Deula because he faced immense stigma when using his original surname.

Education is a key factor in what types of jobs people from the supposed “lower castes” can access. Without a standard education, most are offered jobs as garbage collectors and cleaners, forced to clean sewers or dry latrines with no protective equipment. There is a deep and cruel injustice at work that forces people to “inherit” such occupations due to their designated status in society’s caste system.

Sanitation workers all across Nepal risk their health and safety to provide a public good, and they end up facing stigmas and discrimination as a result. Organizations working in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) have urged local and national leaders not to ignore the plight of sanitation workers. Sanitation workers have a right to dignity and safety, and their concerns must be included in the vision for inclusive and dignified sanitation in Nepal.