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A toilet manual emptier’s life in this day and age

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

In many situations and areas in Tanzania’s cities, manual emptying is the only option for households in densely populated areas with narrow roads and muddy streets that cannot be reached by emptying trucks. The cost of mechanical emptying is often too high for low-income areas. And due to the common practice of throwing solid waste into pits, vacuum truck pipes get blocked.

Although manual emptying [1] is illegal in many areas, manual emptiers continue to endure long hours of inhumane and undignified work conditions. In this blog, SNV Tanzania’s Leyla Khalifa reflects on her discussion with Samuel – a manual emptier – for us to gain more insight into the day-to-day trials faced by emptiers.

‘I am well known as “SAMWEL JALALA” (jalala meaning dumping site in Swahili). I don’t like it, but I have no choice. It’s just a word. It doesn’t break my bones or anything.' Samuel, manual emptier, Arusha

The dangers of manual emptying are very real

Samuel has met several occupation-related injuries at work such as falling into a pit due to the ladder breaking and scraping his skin against a pit’s surface, etc. But some accidents have left permanent scars, ‘I fell in a pit a few years ago and got hurt pretty bad. The accident left a scar next to my right eye.’

Like many workers in his field, Samuel is not aware of the laws surrounding manual emptying and the potential sanctions he may face. What he is aware of is the stigma that surrounds his line of work. Often, he works during the night and/or daytime, when most people are busy with their daily routine to avoid unnecessary attention.

One day, health workers showed up while he was on the job. Word traveled fast and he was informed that their activities were reported by a neighbor. Hearing this, Samuel and his partner fled. ‘Luckily we got away. But then the authorities arrested my boss and he used my payment for the job of 80,000 shillings (approximately US$ 34) to settle the situation.’[2]

A manual emptier’s coping mechanisms

‘The job is disgusting and dangerous. You can never imagine how hot it is in there.’

To cope with all the filth, risks and shame associated with the job, Samuel consumes alcohol, which costs him 2,000 shillings daily (less than US$ 1). The absence of health and safety measures has pushed Samuel to search for alternative and more accessible ways to ease his tensions. As a result, regular alcohol intake is taking a toll on his health.

Added to that, the looming threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in Arusha has raised levels of emptier insecurity. Often paid by the day, many are forced to set aside their fears of contamination and to brave the streets to deliver a service. For day workers/labourers, skipping the opportunity to render an emptying service is not an option.

Today, Samuel fears interaction with people, which includes taking public transport to reach his destination, interacting with customers, and because some jobs require two workers in the pit – having to work closely to each other. The reality is appropriate physical distancing between workers is difficult to manage (without proper training). Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves are hardly supplied to workers… even before the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality for all of us.

The importance of emptying… but in safe conditions

Samuel asserts that people need the unblocking service he provides. He even goes on to praise himself for providing a sanitation service to local authorities. ‘These hands are well needed by my community, even the police station and the local ward office call upon and depend on me whenever they need a service.’

Personally though, he would prefer a safer and more comfortable working environment.  ‘Help me find a job. This one I have to live through because I have no choice and because I have to survive.’

The fact that most people employ the services of manual emptiers, including local authorities themselves, creates a vicious cycle that places emptiers like Samuel at high risk (and danger) – this, at the expense of protecting the health and safety of consumers. As we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, the health of an individual affects the health of a community, whole provinces and nations. In the case of Samuel, leaving him to cope with unsafe conditions on his own – is not only putting his own health at risk – but the health of others, including the environment’s.

Prepared by: Leyla Khalifa (SNV Tanzania, WASH Junior Advisor) with input from Olivier Germain (WASH Sector Leader in Tanzania)

Photos by: SNV/Leyla Khalifa (SNV Tanzania, WASH Junior Advisor)

Notes [1] Manual emptying involves unblocking clogged toilets by fishing out solid waste, and then scooping out the sludge using buckets and bare hands, and disposing the waste in new dug holes, drains or the open environment. [2] Based on OANDA conversation rates dated 22 April 2020. [3] SNV, through the WASH SDG programme, is supporting local government authorities in improving emptying services and making these services more effective and sustainable. With a focus on sanitation workers, we are professionalising sanitation services by formalising the work of sanitation workers, improving work arrangements and methods by promoting Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards and the use of Personal Protective Equipment, and strengthening regulations and enforcement mechanisms.

Original text from SNV Tanzania:

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