The stench is palpable – it burns the eyes, enters deep through the nose and can almost be felt seeping its way through every pore of the body. It is a horrid smell which emanates out of a pit latrine in the slums of Khulna – Bangladesh’s third largest city and home to 1.4 million people. And the person experiencing this ghastly smell is Gopal – a 70-year-old man who manually empties latrine pits.

Gopal has one of the most unenviable jobs in the world. Every day he ventures to some of the most under-developed areas of his city and drains faecal sludge from toilets which are sometimes used by hundreds of people. And he does this with no mechanical equipment whatsoever. It’s a dirty job which considerably affects his health. “I often lose my appetite for food,” says Gopal. “It’s a terrible feeling and I know this work is bad for my health, but I must do this to survive – it is the only way I can make a living.” 

Gopal is one of thousands of manual sludge emptiers across Bangladesh. The job of an emptier in Bangladesh is primarily reserved for Dalits. Dalits are often marginalised and given the menial and despised jobs. They also live in what are called ‘sweeper colonies’, designated and sometimes built by the city authorities, and they are bestowed little consideration when it comes to the health, safety and compensation of their work. The Bangladeshi media reported that 31 manual emptiers died while performing their jobs between January and October 2015, mostly from inhaling poisonous gas while opening lids or physically entering into pits and septic tanks.

“These manual emptiers are confronted with appalling conditions, and they are usually taken advantage of by other members of society,” says Reza Patwary – SNV WASH Advisor. “They have to open latrine pits which sometimes haven’t been accessed for many years, and the only things they use are a couple of buckets, a shovel, a rope and a drum to transport the sludge; they don’t even have basic protective gear like gloves, boots and a helmet. It’s shocking. And the amount of money they receive for their work is minimal. What’s more, faecal sludge management at the moment operates in an informal market. Payments are unofficial, and the emptiers are not insured. This vital urban service is often invisible, mostly taking place in the middle of the night in order to avoid disturbances.”

Under a faecal sludge management programme, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID, SNV is working to provide safer, more profitable working conditions for Gopal and his fellow emptiers, while improving sludge-emptying services to households. The programme professionalises their work, links them to viable business models and promotes the adoption of safe, timely emptying, including Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) standards for workers. This is just one aspect of the programme.

The main goal is to improve the entire faecal sludge management process: from capture and containment, extraction and transport, to treatment and ultimately reuse. The programme shows how a citywide local government-led effort improves the living environment and contributes to the health and well-being of the population, including the workers involved in emptying. It has developed an OSH manual and guidelines for sludge emptying and transportation, which are among the first of their kind in the region. Local authorities are now adopting OSH in their services through the training of emptiers, vacutug-drivers (emptiers who use mechanical equipment), and relevant staff.

“The programme provides health and safety training and access to equipment, such as masks and helmets, and provides skills and knowledge on how to safely transport the sludge,” says Reza. “This training also works to reduce the stigma surrounding the job by making their work more professional. If they are provided with training and proper equipment, they may have a little more pride in their work.”

The health and safety training materials are already creating ground for use by institutional and independent service providers. Once mainstreamed with local authorities and community organisations, OSH will remain a pre-condition for any emptier, including private sector-led emptying services. “Private companies in Bangladesh have already taken over profitable household kitchen waste collection,” says Reza. “SNV is negotiating with some of these organisations to horizontally integrate waste collection and use their existing workforce to periodically check containments in their neighbourhood.”

The programme is formalising the job carried out by these emptiers, and making their payments officially set by the city authority. This would make it mandatory to recruit only the OSH certified emptiers and follow a payment chart connected to the amount of desludging. Their wages would increase from a mere US$4 to as much as US$10 per trip for emptying a pit latrine, which can take up to three hours. “I never had any training like this and I did not feel that anybody cared about our safety,” says Gopal. “There have been many instances in my life when I could not work due to illness and I did not get paid. I feel happy for the younger generation knowing that they will be luckier than us when the Khulna City government formally endorses these guidelines for us, the emptiers.”

This is an extract from our annual publication, SNV Connect 2016. Read the full magazine to find out how our work in Agriculture, Energy and Water, Sanitation & Hygiene is improving the lives of millions of people around the world!