Cookie tracking notice
Are we allowed to crumble with cookies and anonymous tracking?

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site (so called session cookies), while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). We use the application Matomo and the external service etracker to analyze your behavior on our website anonymously. Because we value your privacy, we are here with asking your permission to use the following technologies. You can change your settings any time via this link or the menu item in footer menu. For more information visit our Data Policy

May 2024 A model to improve the dignity and livelihoods of sanitation workers Mike Poustie, Uttam Saha, Jinnaton Nessa

Part of the blog series 'Researchers for Sanitation Workers’ Rights' by UNC Sanitation Workers Research Awards 2023 awardees

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Report 2023 states there were 3.5 billion people lacking access to safely managed sanitation. Achieving the aim of universal coverage requires an increase of five to eight times the current rate of progress. For Bangladesh to achieve SDGs 6.2 and 6.3, including universal safely managed sanitation and wastewater treatment, sanitation workers (pit-emptiers) would play a central and irreplaceable role.

Most initiatives focusing on safely managed sanitation systems in urban areas invest in (i) infrastructure – such as piped sewer systems, or faecal sludge treatment plants in non-piped systems; or (ii) logistical support – such as desludging vehicles. The only attention given to sanitation workers is to provide training courses on occupational health and personal protective equipment (PPE), which do not improve their lives.

The question remains – what approach can most protect sanitation workers and improve their dignity and livelihoods?

Simplistic, siloed health and safety interventions that do not consider the dignity and societal role of workers, or the provision of equipment without business model development, result in only temporary improvements. Long-term, sustainable change requires: skills and education, confidence, a collective platform and agency, access to technology, finance and business development services, social security, networking, and partnership development. These principles are embodied in Practical Action’s Transformative Emptier-to-Entrepreneur model. The following story demonstrates the impact of this model in action.

Raju’s Story

"When a poor father can marry off his daughter, a big weight will come off the heads of poor fathers like us," said a smiling Md. Raju in 2023. When he could not finance his daughter’s wedding, the Kuthibari Cleaners Cooperative Society offered a loan. 

I never thought that the Kuthibari Cooperative Society would be such a big blessing for me”.  

This provided a great opportunity for Raju and his family, and the wedding was a source of dignity and pride. Raju explains that he had no other options, “If I wanted to take a loan from any bank or NGO, no one would have given it to me”. 

Nineteen years ago, when Raju was 18 years old, newly married and recently arrived in Faridpur, his father-in law pressurised him to work as a pit-emptier; this idea disgusted Raju as being unclean work, unsuitable for Muslims. However, in his desperation to support his new family, he realised he had no choice.  

Raju cries as he says, “When I came back from my work at midnight every time, I would regularly bathe with soap for a minimum of one hour”. Unhappy with this situation, he suffered physically and mentally for many years.  

In 2013, Raju met Practical Action, an NGO in the Faridpur area, and asked them to support the pit-emptier community. Firstly, he was advised to form a Community Based Organization (CBO) with community members combining to cover the registration costs. Practical Action then provided support and the Kuthipari Cleaner’s Cooperative Society was established. After six months, it had 34 members and received official government recognition.

Mechanical desludging has changed the lives of Kuthibari Cooperative members

Mechanical desludging has changed the lives of Kuthibari Cooperative members

Raju’s employment, finances and quality of life were transformed as he became a formalized pit-emptier using mechanical emptying equipment. Two years ago, he left pit-emptying and is now contracted by the municipality in mosquito control, although he remains an active cooperative member.

Transformative Emptier-to-Entrepreneur model

Over the past 10 years, Practical Action has refined the model further.

The Transformative Emptier-to-Entrepreneur model

The Transformative Emptier-to-Entrepreneur model

The model sets a vision for change (e.g. decent work and dignified lives), forming cooperatives, and prioritizing female participation and leadership. Members collaboratively prioritize problems using participatory tools, identifying solutions, and agreeing and documenting actions required, including training, on the job coaching, and mentoring support for workers’ development. This enables cooperatives to apply for government registration, following which, the model focuses on entrepreneurship development using externally recognised tools (e.g. ILO toolkits) and approaches (participatory market system development).

Both male and female members are supported to use locally developed, ingenious technologies to replace manual work. Due to the high-risks associated with their work, members are offered (and funded through municipality contracts) social security health and life insurance schemes against accidents and illness.

Networking sessions with employers build partnerships and provide contracts for delivering faecal sludge and solid waste management services. This completes the formalisation of cooperatives into legal institutions with service delivery contracts, improved working conditions, economic resilience and social standing.

Implications for practice and policy

The “Transformative Model” is now implemented as part of national government and international development bank-funded projects across Bangladesh. Practical Action supports 56 cooperatives across 13 cities and national- and city-level worker networks. It is incorporated into national-level training for Citywide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) in Bangladesh. This model has wider applicability, if adapted to specific contexts, to transform the livelihoods and dignity of sanitation workers in the future.

Sanitation workers using PPE and a desludging vehicle

Sanitation workers using PPE and a desludging vehicle

Acknowledgements: This blog was written with support from Mr. Uttam Saha, the previous Thematic Leader for Cities Programming at Practical Action in Bangladesh. This work described was made possible through a program grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Michael Poustie, the author of this blog is a Research Analyst at Practical Action in Bangladesh. For any questions, please contact him using the following email address:

Jinnaton Nessa is an Officer - Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning with Practical Action Bangladesh and collected the story of Raju's experience with this Sanitation Workers' Cooperative.

For more information on Practical Action's transformative cooperative model please visit: