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October 2023 My name is Shafique Massih, I am a sanitation worker. Story of a sewer worker from Pakistan

Sanitation workers should be given more respect. We do dangerous, hazardous work so that people can enjoy a clean environment. April 2023. © ILO/OIT Abu Bakar Hussain

By Shafique Massih, edited by Sterenn Philippe

My name is Shafique Massih and I’m a 45 years old sewer worker in Lahore, Pakistan. My job is to clear sewer system blockages. I was born in Lahore, to a father who was also a sanitation worker, and a mother who was a cleaner. I used to think that I would study and would secure a fine job so that I wouldn’t have to work like my parents, but it didn’t work out that way. My family couldn’t afford to pay for my education, and I began working at the Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA), where I was assigned to work at the sewage disposal station. 

The day I decided to transfer my duties to work in the sewers, was shortly after my daughter’s death. The day I didn’t have enough money to feed my son. That day I felt very helpless, and I decided that whatever happened, even if I had to clean sewers or pick up garbage or whatever I had to do, I would never leave my child hungry. No one goes into a sewer willingly. But when your kids are starving, these things do not matter.  

Every time I enter a sewer I don’t know if I will get out alive. I risk getting cut by blades and broken glass. Getting injured is a normal part of my job. The most frightening thing is the gases that can be released. Some sewer gases can't be assessed from the outside. It’s only when you’re in and move your feet in the sludge that those gases rise up. They can be so toxic that a person can die within seconds. We need proper health checkups every month. We need lighter scuba suits. We need protective shoes, gloves and masks. My life is as important as that of any other person.  

In general, society looks down on us sewer workers, calling us degrading, humiliating names. My son had to leave his school because he was bullied for having a father that cleaned sewers. They wouldn’t sit or eat with him. They threw his lunch into the garbage. One of my friends even asked my wife to forbid me from doing this work, that he was respected in the community and that it would affect his reputation if people knew he was friends with a sewer worker. 

For the last four years, I have been trying to raise my voice through different channels to improve the safety and salaries of sewer workers and other sanitation workers. I have reached out to the government and to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I have also requested that the International Labour Organization (ILO) focus on this. My message to them all is to raise awareness so that people can understand our situation. 

No work is bad, it’s human mentality that needs to be changed. If I don't work, someone else will, and he will also be a human being like me. I am making a living through hard, risky and honest work. I am trying my best and I want a better future for my son and our community. I ask people to please respect the cleaners: Give us respect! 


Read the full story: As a sewer worker, I want respect and safer working conditions, by Shafique Massih.