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Sewage tragedy widows demand better future for their children

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Two women who have lost their husbands due to the inhuman working conditions within Pakistani sewers have launched a campaign to change the anachronistic sewage system of Pakistan, the hazardous conditions of employment of mostly Christian labour force within the industry and the egregiously low pay on regularly renewed temporary contracts which prevents workers obtaining free access to social services and healthcare.

On the 3rd of July 2017 three Christian men employed in the sewage industry lost their lives whilst entering a sewage pipe filled with noxious gas to make repairs.  Sufiyan (50yrs) lost her son and her husband, the other widow Humaira (22 yrs) was newly wed and is expecting her first child. Sadly for the two of them there is no government compensation for them as their husbands were both on temporary contracts without recourse to social assistance or healthcare. 

The two widows are now being supported by the BPCA; Sufiyan who has lost her son and husband will be supported to the extent of £70 per month for 6 moths.  We have also convinced the employer of the deceased to hire one of her other sons as a form of compensation.  For the Sufiyan BPCA is covering the lost wages of her former husband to the amount of £100 for six months and has agreed to cover all medical costs for the birth of her child. 


Humaira (22 yrs) is an expecting mother  and the widow of Danish Masih who died at the age of 25.  She will receive £100 per month  for the next six months.

 
Safiyan Bibi (50 yrs) is the widow of Saleem Masih who died at 50 yrs. Safiyan was also the mother of Nadeem Masih who died at 18 yrs.  As we found employment for one of her sons as compensation she will be receiving £70 per month for the next 6 months.  

Christians living in Pakistan have become extremely demoralised in recent months as dozens of deaths of the many sewage workers amongst them have occurred. In an attempt to change their lot the two widows, though sick with grief have spearheaded a challenge to the Government of Pakistan to improve the quality of work and life for sewage workers.

They say they want to change the existing situation so that future generations of Christians do not suffer the way the men in their lives have.


Two distraught families come to terams with the loss of loved members.

Sufiyan Bibi, spoke to BPCA's Ambara Saroya, she said:

"Christians are treated like filthy animals.  Our men are forced to do work that Muslims do not want to do. They are beaten by their employers if they are late and work long hours for very little pay. 

"My husband complained about the lack of safety equipment and clothing but his pleas were ignored. He was always so tired and his health was poor but he struggled on for his children."

She added:

"Often we would cry over the fact that our children had to do the same onerous work as him. There was no way out of the poverty cycle. We could not pay the costs for school and needed extra income just to survive. Now my son is dead too and I feel as if I have been a bad mother. 

"Now that my other son has started work I am terrified he will lose his life as well.  My life is so full of pain but no-one seems to want to bring about any changes to make our lives better. Even then I keep my hope in Christ and rejoice that in heaven we will be free from all this suffering."

Life for sewage workers is extremely harsh. Despite the valuable service employees provide they are treated with great cruelty. Workers earn a pittance with an average wage of £103 per month which barely covers their rent meaning that families are forced to gain extra income through the employment of wives and children. Despite minimum wage requirements some employees are paid even less as they work for unscrupulous private contractors.

Work is scheduled for 8 hours per day but inevitably every employee ends up working for many more hours whilst unpaid.

When employed by authorities like Municipal Cantonment, Water and Sanitation Agency, Lahore Development Authority, and Rawalpindi Cantonment employees are placed on an initial 3 month probation contract during which no social welfare is applicable to them. However after 3 months on a full employment contract employees are entitled to benefits such as free healthcare, and a small pension on retirement at 65 years of age - if their health holds out that long! Employees must be below 35 years of age to be considered to start employment with one of these agencies for which there is no minimum learning requirements. It isn't surprising to find Christian graduates working in the industry some are forced to take up such blue collar jobs due to a lack of opportunity.

Private contractors to the sewage industry however tear up contracts after the 3 month probation and initiate a new probation contract every three months. This results in their employees having no recourse to the welfare benefits due to them and being prone to instant dismissal at whim. When operatives complain or ask for full employment contracts they are threatened, then beaten and removed from employment - some are even killed.

A letter calling for reform of employment practice for Christians is being drafted by the villagers of Ara Basti, Bhawalpur with the help of the BPCA.  The letter which will be delivered to the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan will list the demands shown in our petition below.  The villagers have asked the global community to show their support for these changes by signng the petition, which will delivered in tandem.

cfor safer employment and better employment rights for sewage workers in pakistan (click here)

Christians account for 90 percent of sewage workers and an even higher percentage of government employed sweepers, they make up only 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population.

Christian sanitation workers face extremely dangerous work conditions. Pakistan’s sewage system has not been modernised since British colonial times. Pipes are buried under the ground, with a series of manholes used to clean them. When a sewer line is blocked, bamboo is put into the pipeline through the manhole to penetrate blockages and restart movement. If it is filled with blackwater sewage (sludge), then a cleaner is expected to hold his breath and dive into the filthy water without any provision of protective clothing or equipment, to clear the blockage. Christian workers sometimes dive 30 to 50 feet below ground into manholes filled with toxic water. Monitoring equipment for poisonous gases is rarely used before clearing a blockage.

BPCA is launching an appeal for safety gear and appropriate protective clothing and would particularly appreciate a response from those working in the trades themselves. 

Please contact our BPCA office directly if you are able to assist in this way at 020 8514 0861.

Pakistan's authorities discriminate against the country’s religious minorities which relegates them to lowly sanitation jobs. The Faisalabad Waste Management Company (FWMC) set strict conditions for those who "will improve the cleanliness of the city", stating that candidates "must be from Faisalabad, healthy and non-Muslims."

For some time, Christians have complained that the Punjab provincial government hires only Christians as sanitation workers. Last year, the head of Multan District Health Bureau announced that he would hire only non-Muslims to perform such work in local hospitals and rural health facilities. In 2013, the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province Parvez Khattak, had to clarify his position after stating that "Muslims cannot be hired as sweepers or cleaners” because sanitation work “can only be carried out by Christians, Hindus and lower castes."

Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the BPCA, said:

"Lack of opportunity and economic resources forces Christians to seek employment in sanitary work. Christians are harassed and bullied at school or simply cannot afford the fees for a decent education. This limits educational achievement for most Christians.

"Sewer workers are forced to risk their lives on a regular basis by their Muslim employers who see this as a way to demonstrate the supremacy of Islam.

"Christians face discrimination in the workplace relegating them to lower paid jobs even when holding bachelor degrees. Worse still adverts promoted for cleaner and sewage vacancies which often place restrictions for applicants from non-Muslim communities only. These woeful advertisements that discriminate against non-Muslims by suggesting they are only good for lower paid roles are an attempt to divide society. They promote the view that non-Muslims are second-class citizens.

"Restrictive employment practices such as these are a gross violation of Article 27 of the Constitution, which says: ‘No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth’.

"The government of Pakistan has to take action to terminate the ongoing systematic oppression of Christians and other minorities.  Pakistan is a signatory to the UN Human Rights Convention and many other laws that prescribe equality, freedom and justice and are obligated under these to safeguard 'all' their citizens."









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