Pushing a metal rod that he uses to lift the sewer lid and a bamboo stick to unclog the pipes, Iqbal Masih walks along a narrow street in a busy neighbourhood in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.
The deliberate dragging of the rod is meant to notify residents that Masih, a well-known face in the area, was there if anyone needed him.
“This is the only profession I know,” said Masih, who has been a sanitation worker for more than 30 years.
“I know it’s risky, unhygienic and people look down on us. But someone has to do it. If I don’t do this, I do nothing. And that’s worse,” the 51-year-old told Al Jazeera, finishing off his cigarette and looking around to see if anyone had come out of their house.
Sanitation workers are individuals whose jobs can include cleaning toilets, emptying pits and septic tanks, cleaning sewers and manholes and operating pumping stations and treatment plants.
In many parts of the world, they often descend into the sewers without gloves or any other protective gear for very little money or respect. The work is usually accompanied by a set of risks, some of them life-threatening.
Masih is one of thousands undertaking these risks on a daily basis around the world, at a time when health experts and organisations are urging extra steps to ensure cleanliness and basic hygiene amid the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 18,500 people have died after contracting the coronavirus, with infections exceeding the 400,000 mark globally. Experts recommend washing hands with soap regularly, or using a sanitiser, as a protective measure against the new coronavirus.
But for millions around the world, including Masih, that’s not an option.
“Sanitiser? I don’t even know what that is. I clear up human waste with my bare hands. I wash my hands with water afterwards. Sometimes, people don’t even let me do that, so I have to find water somewhere else.”
The size of the sanitation workforce globally is not known, according to a joint report, titled Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers, released in November last year by the World Bank, World Health Organization, International Labour Organization and WaterAid.
“Sanitation workers are among the most invisible and neglected in society,” the report said. “These workers are often the most marginalised, poor and discriminated-against members of society who carry out their jobs with no equipment, protection or legal rights, often violating their dignity and human rights.
“It is only when those critical services fail, when society is confronted with fecal waste in ditches, streets, rivers, and beaches or occasional media reports of sanitation worker deaths, that the daily practice and plight of sanitation workers come to light.”
Sanitation workers do not get paid much – on most days, Masih would earn less than 1,000 rupees ($6.5) – for doing this risky job.
Besides human faeces, needles, blades and broken glass, other sharp objects are thrown in the drains that can cause physical harm, said Raj Kumar, another Karachi-based sanitary worker whose name directly translates to “prince”.