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Sargodha, Pakistan – It is just before 4am on a chilly November morning and Maryam Bibi, 34, is waiting in a small, musty room for her 16-year-old son Suleman to get ready so they can leave for work.
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They will start work before sunrise, as they do seven days a week, collecting the trash from people’s homes and sweeping the streets.
A single bulb attached to exposed wires hangs over the door of the room where Maryam’s five other children, four of them younger than Suleman, all sleep.
Maryam unplugs the bulb from the socket and their bare, two-room home plunges into darkness. She needs to charge her phone on the only power socket before heading out for the day.
After a rushed breakfast of tea and stale bread, Maryam and Suleman hop on a rickety motorbike and make their way through the winding streets of a sleeping Sargodha, Pakistan’s 12th largest city, sandwiched between the Jhelum and Chenab rivers in the central-eastern province of Punjab.
It is still dark out, and the mother-son duo is headed to a small residential neighbourhood where they will spend their morning picking garbage for a combined monthly salary of 16,000 rupees ($55.43) that must sustain their family of eight.
“Ammi [mother] tells me to go back to school, that she will do the work herself, but I just can’t. Not anymore,” says Suleman as he pulls on a worn-out pair of suede gloves bought at a flea market.
He uses these gloves to protect his hands while rummaging through garbage cans.
“It’s my responsibility to look after my siblings now that Abbo [father] is gone.”
Suleman, a soft-spoken teenager, had dreamt of one day joining the police force. He knows how unlikely that is now that he has had to step up and help his widowed mother run the household.
Suleman’s father Nadeem died over a year ago when he drowned in a blocked sewer.
As she begins her busy day, Maryam admits that she and her children “don’t even have the luxury of sitting at home and grieving their loss”. With bare hands, and dressed in a tattered shalwar kameez and chador, she knocks on one door after another, swiftly collecting trash into a rusty wheelbarrow as Suleman follows, intently observing his mother, learning the job he inherited from his late father.
A death trap
Thirty-eight-year-old Nadeem Masih (a common surname among Pakistani Christians that means Messiah in Arabic and Urdu) had worked with the local sanitation corporation for nearly half his life. For 17 years, he was paid a daily wage, as he waited for a permanent contract that would legally grant him the status of a permanent government employee and secure him a legal minimum wage, paid leave, and other social benefits.
At around 10pm on Sunday, October 3, 2021, Nadeem and several other workers received a phone call from their supervisor, urgently summoning them to clean a blocked sewage line in the city centre.
“He didn’t want to go because it was his day off, but the supervisor threatened him [by saying he’d fire him if he didn’t go], so I also encouraged him to comply because we couldn’t risk losing the job,” says Maryam as tears well up in her eyes. “We are helpless and poor, without any rights whatsoever. We don’t have a choice when supervisors threaten, curse and disrespect us. Our only option is to give in.”
Nadeem reluctantly left the house that night.
Shortly after midnight, Maryam received a frantic call from her nephew, asking her to rush to the open sewer that had become a death trap for her husband and another man, Faisal Masih, 28, the sole breadwinner for his family, and father to a newborn baby.
Maryam and Suleman rushed to the site of the accident just 10 minutes from their home. “At first I didn’t understand what was going on. There were a lot of people there and they were all shouting. My nephew told me Nadeem had drowned, but I didn’t believe him until I saw him down there myself,” recalls Maryam.
Both men lay covered in sewage sludge for six hours before their bodies were finally extracted by a colleague. According to Maryam the supervisor had fled the scene.
Kept on edge
That night, Nadeem and Faisal’s colleague Michael Masih had been the first of the three men to descend into the manhole. “Once you remove the cover, you must always wait for 30-40 minutes to let the poisonous gases evaporate, but our supervisor was impatient and he forced me to go down right away,” he recalls mournfully, sitting on the roof of the home that he shares with his three brothers and their families.
As Michael climbed down the ladder, it collapsed and he fell into the sludge. His fall released more noxious gas. “I fell unconscious instantly,” he recalls. When he woke up, he was told that both Nadeem and Faisal had died trying to save him. The toxic sewer gases had rendered them unconscious and both men drowned.
Their deaths, says the 30-year-old father of two, wiping the tears off his cheeks with his sleeve, could easily have been prevented if they hadn’t been forced to rush and had proper safety gear.
“You cannot imagine what my heart goes through every day thinking about what happened that night,” he says.
Nadeem and Faisal’s employer denies any wrongdoing in relation to their deaths.
This was not an isolated incident. In the absence of workplace health and safety regulations and ethical superintendence, Pakistan’s sanitation workers, about 80 percent of whom are Christian, are routinely exposed to a host of unsafe and deadly work practices.
Generation after generation of Pakistani Christians like Nadeem, Faisal and Michael face preventable workplace deaths and accidents as they are forced into the hazardous work of cleaning the country’s streets and gutters.
Over a period of years, desperate daily workers without other prospects are kept on edge – forced to do just one more job, or go down just one more clogged sewer without protective gear – with the promise of a life-changing contract that would give them and their families the protection of health insurance and a pension.
But now, some are fighting back.
In Pakistan, more than 90 percent of people identify as practising Muslims. The country’s 2017 census estimated there to be 2.6 million Christians, about 1.27 percent of the total population, making them Pakistan’s second-largest religious minority after Hindus.
Although Pakistan was founded in 1947 with the intention of creating a tolerant and egalitarian country, Pakistani Christians have continued to endure substandard living conditions, and in recent years, the community has been the target of escalating attacks due to growing intolerance. Christians have faced persecution, targeted killings – including gunmen killing a Catholic man and a priest in two separate incidents last year – forced conversions, mob violence, and destruction of their places of worship and graves by perpetrators emboldened by the absence of meaningful action from the authorities and widespread impunity.
The severe discrimination and attacks against religious minorities have led the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to designate Pakistan as a country of “particular concern”.
The Christian minority has also been heavily persecuted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which carry a possible death sentence for anyone found guilty of insulting Islam. According to the Lahore-based NGO Centre for Social Justice, seven Christian individuals were charged and imprisoned over blasphemy charges in 2021. At least two others were arrested and tried for the same crime in separate incidents in 2022. The threat of being accused of blasphemy has also been used to intimidate the community.
Pakistani Christians have been forced into sanitation work – a hazardous occupation – as a result of centuries-old discriminatory practices that limit their prospects, according to Asif Aqeel, deputy director of the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ), a minority-led policy research and minority rights organisation. This “cycle of abuse” has its roots in the caste system of the Indian subcontinent, explains Aqeel, as he sits in his office in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
Inside his humble office, ceiling-high shelves are packed with files comprising evidence and years of research he and his colleagues have done on Pakistani religious minorities, particularly Christians.
“Missionaries began arriving in pre-partition India [before 1947] in the 19th century,” he explains. The missionaries began converting many so-called “low-caste”, “untouchable” Hindus to Christianity. “They had always been assigned the ignominious task of cleaning after the ‘upper castes’,” Aqeel continues. “After the partition, they didn’t have a choice but to continue the work their ancestors did.”
Outcasts from childhood
Today, most Christian sanitation workers are treated as social outcasts. People generally avoid shaking hands, making friends, and even eating or drinking with them.
The term “churha”, which officially translates to “sweeper”, is now seen by many as derogatory but is still casually used as a slur for Christians, regardless of their profession, explains Aqeel.
“I myself have been called a ‘churha’ many times simply because I belong to the same community,” he says. “This kind of emotional and psychological abuse begins early on, sometimes in classrooms, and has severe ramifications on a child’s wellbeing and confidence.”
Bullying and active discouragement from pursuing further education and professions other than gutter cleaning reinforce a sense of shame and diminished self-esteem, according to Aqeel.
‘Too old for school’
“When I was 11, my mother tried to put me in school, but they refused to give me admission,” recalls Muskan, Maryam’s 18-year-old daughter, as she quietly prepares lunch for the family. “The teacher told my mother that I was too old for school and that I should be working as a sweeper instead.”
Ever since, she has been cooking and cleaning at home. As her siblings play with their late father’s pigeons on the rooftop, she recalls how she felt ashamed when she found out her father was a sanitation worker who cleaned sewers and excreta for a living. “[I] often requested him to find some other work,” admits Muskan, who misses her father terribly.
Maryam dreads the day her daughter will have to leave the house to pursue a cleaning job. With so few options, she believes it is inevitable. “Nadeem didn’t want any of his children to work. He wanted them to study and build a better life for themselves so they don’t have to clean people’s filth like we do,” she explains. But now, on her own, she says she can’t afford to put them all through school and just hopes she can find a good husband for Muskan.
Trying to break the cycle
In Lahore, 45-year-old Aslam Masih and his 40-year-old wife Asiya Masih, both sanitation workers – whose parents worked as sweepers, as did their parents before them – are trying to break the cycle so that their children can lead easier lives.
“Nobody should have to go through this kind of degradation on a daily basis, but our parents did it to sustain us and we do it for our children,” says Aslam, who has been working for the municipality for more than 20 years.
“We have to do whatever we’re told. I was ashamed to tell my children that I go down sewers and clean filth with my hands for a few hundred rupees,” says Aslam, who believes that the only way his children can have a better life is through education.
But decent education is a luxury not many families can afford. While the government of Punjab and several nongovernmental organisations offer free primary and secondary education to all citizens, the burden of the ever-increasing cost of living compels most low-income families – especially from marginalised minority communities – to send their children to work.
When they find that all the other doors are closed, they will invariably turn to sanitation work where, according to Aslam, “our kind is always in demand… They know we don’t have any other opportunities and that’s how they exploit us.”
Literacy rates reflect the impact of this structural discrimination. While no new comparative data is available, a 2001 report by Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace estimated the average literacy rate among Christians to be 34 percent as compared to the then-national average of 46.56 percent.
Today, rising inflation – 35.4 percent in March, the highest rate since 1973 – makes it harder than ever for families to put food on the table, let alone send their children to school.
Aslam and Asiya, however, are steadfast, both working extra shifts that sometimes last up to 18 hours to keep their four children between the ages of seven and 17 in school for as long as possible.
Just a few kilometres north of the couple’s modest home in Youhanabad, Lahore’s largest Christian majority area, another Christian daily wage worker, 35-year-old Michael, who goes by just one name, arrives at a quick cleaning job on a busy thoroughfare in a posh residential neighbourhood in central Lahore.
“I started working as a sweeper when I was 14 or 15 years old and was first asked to go down a clogged sewer when I was 17. I was offered 250 rupees ($0.87 in today’s currency) by the contractor to go down a 20-foot gutter to manually clean the pipelines of excreta with only a rope tied around my waist for safety,” Michael recounts, as he takes off his shirt and hands it to his colleague. “Two hundred and fifty rupees is a lot of money when you don’t have food at home, so I couldn’t refuse.”
Hundreds of people pass by as he stands next to the sewer. None of them seems to notice the half-naked man.
Michael yanks the heavy concrete lid off with both hands, and a dozen cockroaches run for cover. He is unfazed as he swiftly begins his climb down the dark, malodorous hole in just his trousers. He has no protective gear.
Sewer gas is a combination of toxic and nontoxic gases found in different concentrations depending on the levels of waste and decay. Exposure in large concentrations to highly toxic components like hydrogen sulphide and ammonia can cause convulsions, inability to breathe, rapid unconsciousness, and death. In Pakistan, workers are routinely expected to work around raw sewage, sludge and septic tank waste without proper protective equipment.
Dry suits, masks, oxygen tanks, and even gloves are a luxury that front-line workers like Michael, Aslam and Nadeem have never used.
On a normal day, exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause diseases and infect lacerations is the least of their worries when poisoning or sudden death by noxious gases is a very real and imminent threat.
At least six sanitation workers, all Christian, have died within the last year after inhaling poisonous sewer gases in otherwise preventable workplace accidents across Pakistan. All were men who had families.
Aqeel says it is likely that none of the men were provided with sufficient protection. “The primary reason for deaths of sanitation workers is lack of PPE (personal protective equipment),” he says.
Sweepers Are Superheroes
In early 2022, Aqeel and his CLJ colleagues released a harrowing repository of nearly 300 discriminatory job advertisements that were published in Pakistani newspapers between 2010 and 2021. “I had been collecting these ads for a decade, and it was time to make them public,” he says. “These discriminatory job ads specifically invited Christians and other non-Muslims to apply for janitorial openings in public sector organisations.” Many of these ads were for positions at government agencies.
They shared this data with Pakistan’s Supreme Court in October 2021 – along with a petition to identify and strike down discriminatory policies, laws, regulations and any service rules that, according to Aqeel, “sanction abuse of a particular group of people that are already marginalised”.
Mary James Gill, CLJ executive director and a former member of the Punjab Assembly, has played a pivotal role in putting a spotlight on the brutal working conditions and attitudes towards sanitation workers in Pakistan through an online advocacy campaign started in 2019 and called Sweepers Are Superheroes.
The campaign, she explains, aims to improve the dignity of these “heroic workers” by stirring grassroots and policy discussions about the need for social and legal protection for this community.
“We want people to understand that they are not ‘outcasts’, but people just like the rest of us,” she says.
In December 2021, the government of Punjab banned the use of “churha” when referring to janitorial staff and sanitary workers, imposing legal action against those who violate the ban.
“This was a big win for us. We have also joined hands with the NCHR [The National Commission for Human Rights] to campaign for better working conditions and put an end to religious discrimination when hiring for janitorial jobs,” Gill says.
In January 2022, the Islamabad High Court issued notices to various ministries seeking a ban on advertisements for people from religious minorities to fill the post of sweepers. Activists like Gill believe it is a step in the right direction, but that policy changes and legislation are needed to protect the lives of workers and ensure better opportunities for minorities.
Meanwhile, members of religious minority communities say there is an inconsistent application of domestic laws safeguarding human rights and against societal discrimination and neglect at the federal and provincial levels.
‘Are our lives not worth anything?’
In Karachi, the capital of Sindh province and the country’s principal seaport and financial centre on the coast of the Arabian Sea, things are just as bad for sanitation workers.
The third-largest megacity in the world is home to Patras Masih, 30, a Christian sweeper who had been working day and night, without any days off through last year’s torrential monsoon rain spell between July and August.
“It feels like I haven’t been home in a month,” he says as he sits with his family on a small terrace in their home in a low-income Christian neighbourhood.
The terrace doubles as a living room while a tarp-covered section with a portable gas stove and a handful of hanging pots and pans serves as the kitchen.
“I asked for a day off,” he says, but his employer “said I can leave if I don’t want to come back to work again. We get no sick days and were forced to work double and triple shifts through the rains. The funny thing is, I still don’t have a contract.”
It’s a Sunday morning and the family, having just finished breakfast, will soon go to mass without him. “I don’t remember the last time I had the time to go to church on Sunday,” he says.
Patras is in a rush because he has to get ready for yet another 14-hour shift. His pregnant wife, who is in her early 20s, sits in a corner sombrely listening while his recently widowed mother Shama Arif wipes her teary eyes with a worn-out chador that covers her fragile frame. “They don’t even give us time to grieve properly,” she says.
In June, her husband Arif and his colleague Meraj, both in their 50s, met the same fate as Nadeem and Faisal. The men were called in for an urgent job to descend a manhole to clear out choked pipelines in a wealthy residential neighbourhood.
“It was horrible. When I got a call, I rushed over and found my father’s lifeless body floating in raw sewage. That’s all I think about now. Why are our lives not worth anything?” Patras’s younger brother Danish, 25, solemnly asks.
Two months had passed and Shama claims that not one of Arif’s supervisors had visited to pay their respects or compensate the family for their loss.
A historic lawsuit
Back in Sargodha, shortly after her husband’s death, Maryam, with the help of a lawyer, set a precedent by filing a lawsuit against the supervisors who she claims forced him to work without protective equipment.
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the widow of a “daily-wager” sanitation worker killed on the job registered a criminal case for involuntary manslaughter.
Although Faisal was a permanent employee, his family followed in Maryam’s footsteps and also joined the case. Under Islamic law, which governs all cases irrespective of the plaintiff’s religion, if found guilty, the defendants – the three supervisors working for the Sargodha Metropolitan Corporation – would have to pay diyat, or financial compensation, to the heirs of the deceased.
This amount was estimated to be roughly 16.6 million rupees ($57,507) per family, a significant amount for anyone earning less than $100 a month after years of service.
“I have no money left. I have taken loans from friends and relatives that I can’t pay back. I want justice for my husband’s death, but I also have to feed my children and make sure they live a decent life,” says Maryam, who spoke with anger as the case went on. Despite her resolve to receive the compensation, she was also painfully aware of her limitations, which became clearer when Faisal’s family dropped the charges after receiving a cheque for 1.9 million rupees ($6,582) from the defendants – the amount due to the family of permanent employees in case of occupational fatality.
Gill and her team had been monitoring the case closely since Nadeem’s death, trying to rally support for the family as it pursued not just the case but also Nadeem’s outstanding dues, which Maryam says have still not been paid by the corporation.
Throughout, Maryam says she risked losing her own job with the corporation. She claims that she was pressured to drop the charges by being threatened with losing her job and not receiving payment or her husband’s dues.
“We were never sure if the families would be able to bear the pressure and see the case through to its logical end. And as expected, the corporation used all its pressurising tactics and forced Maryam to settle out of court. Much to our disappointment, the case was closed with a settlement of just 500,000 rupees ($1,732),” says Gill.
“[Maryam] reluctantly gave in,” she explains. “It’s a broken system. But, this was still a big deal.”
An initial attempt in 2021 to seek an interview with an official from the Sargodha Metropolitan Corporation to clarify their position on the case was unsuccessful. At an initial hearing, the defendants denied the allegations, claiming the deaths were an accident.
Several other attempts have been made since the beginning of this year to seek a response from the corporation or its senior management – via landline phone calls, WhatsApp messages and emails – about the case, Maryam’s job status and Nadeem’s outstanding dues. No response has been received.
Maryam’s fight is not over. She is still waiting for regularisation of her job status and Nadeem’s dues, more than a year after his death. And she has been considering reopening the case in Lahore High Court with CLJ’s help. “This would be excellent as it will give so much hope to others like her,” Gill says, adding that CLJ will continue to stand beside her and provide free legal support. A case like this could pave the way for legislative reform to alleviate the suffering of Pakistani sanitation workers.
“I am grateful to Mary Gill and everyone who has stood beside me, but I have to think about reopening the case. I am an uneducated woman. If I do, I could never fight this battle without their help,” Maryam explains.
She is tired and faltering, but as she starts her days at 4am, and considers the next step in her battle for justice, she thinks of what it all means for her children. “I want a better life for them,” she says.