In everyday conversations, they are interchangeably referred to as Churhas, sweepers, or Christians – all terms bearing pejorative connotations, reminding, as it were, these people of their “rightful” place in this religiously-sanctioned hierarchical society. Forming a cohesive social group in Faisalabad, as in most of urban Pakistan, they make up the bulk of municipal sweepers and sanitation workers who have customarily been associated with “polluting” and “dirty” work related to drains, sewers, and waste collection. Confined to menial, low-paying hazardous work, without any provision of safety equipment and protective gear from municipal administration, many Christian workers have been poisoned to death while working in manholes, gutters, etc.
The untimely death of Shaukat Masih (in his mid-30s) in April 2022, marks perhaps the latest incident, unfortunately not the last, in a never-ending cycle of miseries that characterize the collective lives of minorities in Pakistan. This unfortunate incident is yet another reminder to society of the costs and disadvantages of extreme marginalization to which the minorities have been relegated – had this happened in some other part of the world it would have jolted the very conscience of the society. As is so frequently the case, however, such incidents are occasioned by a tokenistic outpouring of grief from some sections of society only to be forgotten and erased as the news cycle renews itself to take up yet another issue as per the considerations of maximizing media ratings and profiteering.
Shaukat was born and brought up in Faisalabad – Pakistan’s textile industrial hub. Described as a hardworking person by his colleagues, he was always on time for his job and had made it a point never to shirk his responsibilities. As a sanitation worker, he was employed on a contractual basis as a daily wage laborer with the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) in Faisalabad. The sanitation work he had been doing involved opening clogged underground sewerage lines that release toxic gases from excrement, pollutants, and other waste. Quite aside from the fact that the job is considered unhygienic and potentially life-threatening, it is also financially unrewarding to meet basic needs. When a sanitation worker goes down a manhole – without safety equipment – it must be barely at the back of his mind whether he will be able to come out alive.
Shaukat’s wife had asked him on several occasions to quit his work. Fearing it would snatch from them the only source of their livelihoods, Shaukat could not relent. “He said it would be difficult for us to survive without the job and take care of the children, especially in these times when inflation is so high,” his widow recalls. The injustice meted out to sanitation workers is evident from the fact that even though originally Shaukat had been employed as a sanitation worker at WASA, occasionally he would be required to work as a mechanic.
On Friday, April 1, 2022, Shaukat Masih, along with three co-workers, was on his routine job. With a promise to return with some cash for his wife and clothes for their children, he dropped his wife at her workplace. On that fateful day, he could not have foreseen that his life was about to end – without any warning or proviso – and that he would be unable to see his wife and children again. Shehzad Masih, his co-workers, who accompanied him to the sight and survived the incident which claimed Shaukat’s life, recounts what transpired on that day.
It was in the afternoon that they received an order from their supervisor, who asked them to hurry to arrive at the local sanitation disposal plant where they were required to unclog a sewerage line. It turned out that the sewerage line was poisonous and when his co-workers descended into it without safety gear, they passed out after exposure to poisonous fumes. Seeing that his co-workers were in trouble, Shaukat decided to rescue them and went down the manhole; the rest is history.
“We received a call from our supervisor. Never in our life have we refused his order. While working, we opened the gutter cover. What happened later, I don’t remember. When I came to senses I was in the hospital and was not even informed that Shaukat had passed away, except for that it was he who rescued us all,” Shehzad said.
In a bid to rescue his co-workers, Shaukat lost his own life as his dead body was recovered later.
The single most prevalent reason for the death of sanitation workers is the lack of proper sanitation equipment. Aamir Rahmat, who serves as the secretary of the Jamhoori Workers Union, says, “As many as 46 sanitation workers have lost their lives on duty. The death of Shaukat Masih is the latest in the series of incidents that have been happening here on an almost daily basis.” As most of these sanitation workers are employed on an informal/contractual basis, it enables employers to get around labor laws and shelve requisite responsibilities of providing their workers with necessary training and safety equipment. It is high time that steps were taken to provide legal justice to victims of exploitation and discrimination like Shaukat Masih. This requires setting in place strict mechanisms to gain compliance of employers with necessary labor regulations. Moreover, by providing sanitation workers with permanent contracts, and imparting them training and safety equipment, we can save many precious lives.
 According to the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR), Christians make up less than two percent of the population but occupy more than 80 percent of the cleaning, sweeping and sanitation jobs. See, for example, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220404-pipe-dreams-pakistan-sewage-workers-hope-for-better-future