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United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

Global advocacy for the health, safety, and dignity of sanitation workers

United Nations / Multilateral body

    UN-Water dedicated its World Water Day and World Toilet Day campaigns in 2016 to the links between Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and jobs, underscoring the many elements linking SDGs 6 and 8. The working conditions, skills and formalization of those working for WASH were central to these campaigns. Since then, these linkages have been incorporated into the work of UN-Water.

    The sanitation workforce dedicated to faecal sludge management bridges the gap between sanitation infrastructure and the provision of sanitation services. Sanitation workers provide an essential public service but often at the cost of their dignity, safety, health, and living conditions. They are some of the most vulnerable workers. They are far too often invisible, unquantified, and ostracized, and many of the challenges they face stem from this fundamental lack of acknowledgement. Sanitation workers are exposed to serious occupational and environmental health hazards risking illness, injury, and death.

    Frequently hailing from marginalized, low-income, class, caste backgrounds or religious minorities, the priorities and concerns of sanitary workers, especially those involved in the hazardous removal of human waste, remain not only overlooked but are unseen by decision-makers, and the wider society.
    Sanitation workers range from permanent public or private employees with health benefits, pensions, and clear legal protections to some of the most marginalized, poor, and abused members of society who take on low-grade, labour-intensive, and dangerous work. For those employed informally, their work is financially precarious, with poor pay and few benefits. Sanitation workers often suffer weak legal protection, missing or weak standard operating procedures and weak enforcement and oversight of laws and policies protecting their rights and health.

    Ensuring the fundamental principles and rights at work and improving the working conditions of sanitation workers is a key contribution to SDG 6 and SDG 8. Better conditions for water workers will improve water and sanitation services, making clean water provision and sanitation not only a path towards water access but also to employment and business growth.

    The Initiative for Sanitation Workers led by the ILO and its partners launched an initial assessment of the working conditions of sanitation workers in 2019. Titled “Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers”, the assessment called for the promotion of ILO instruments on OSH, freedom of association and the formalization of sanitation workers. As a result, the ILO organized a workshop on the working conditions of sanitation workers in South Asia, which concluded with the adoption of dedicated strategies to address the decent work deficits of sanitation workers. Currently, the ILO is developing projects in several countries including India and Pakistan.

    Commitment: A research and advocacy campaign in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to promote decent work, skills and knowledge development as well as improve the working conditions of sanitation workers.

    Expected Impact

    Designed with an explicit pro-poor focus that seeks to eradicate extreme poverty, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promises to “leave no one behind”. A focus on sanitation workers and decent jobs in the WASH sector would support the main foundation of the 2030 Agenda. Implemented at the local level, the commitment targets the workers who are most at risk of being left behind. The actions will help accelerate the implementation of SDG 6, 8, and 11, particularly targets 6.1, 6.2, 6.a, and 6.b; 8.3, 8.7, and 8.8; 11.5, and 11.6 respectively through improved awareness of existing decent work deficits; recognition, organization, and formalization of sanitation work and workers; application of the fundamental principles and rights at work, national labour laws, and occupational safety and health (OSH) principles to sanitation workers and the WASH sector; regular engagement with social partners to promote social dialogue; the promotion of decent jobs creation in the WASH sector; and the upskilling, and reskilling of sanitation workers.


    World Health Organization (WHO)
    World Bank
    Netherlands Development Organization (SNV)
    Local Authorities
    Trade Unions
    Water Utilities

    Goal 6

    Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

    Goal 6


    By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all


    Proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services


    By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations


    Proportion of population using (a) safely managed sanitation services and (b) a hand-washing facility with soap and water


    By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally


    Proportion of domestic and industrial wastewater flows safely treated


    Proportion of bodies of water with good ambient water quality


    By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity

    Change in water-use efficiency over time


    Level of water stress: freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources


    By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate


    Degree of integrated water resources management 


    Proportion of transboundary basin area with an operational arrangement for water cooperation


    By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes

    Change in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time


    By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

    Amount of water- and sanitation-related official development assistance that is part of a government-coordinated spending plan


    Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management


    Proportion of local administrative units with established and operational policies and procedures for participation of local communities in water and sanitation management

    Goal 8

    Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

    Goal 8


    Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries

    Annual growth rate of real GDP per capita


    Achieve higher levels of economic productivity through diversification, technological upgrading and innovation, including through a focus on high-value added and labour-intensive sectors


    Annual growth rate of real GDP per employed person


    Promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalization and growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises, including through access to financial services


    Proportion of informal employment in total employment, by sector and sex


    Improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production, with developed countries taking the lead


    Material footprint, material footprint per capita, and material footprint per GDP


    Domestic material consumption, domestic material consumption per capita, and domestic material consumption per GDP


    By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value

    Average hourly earnings of female and male employees, by occupation, age and persons with disabilities


    Unemployment rate, by sex, age and persons with disabilities


    By 2020, substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training

    Proportion of youth (aged 15-24 years) not in education, employment or training


    Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms


    Proportion and number of children aged 5‑17 years engaged in child labour, by sex and age


    Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment


    Fatal and non-fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 workers, by sex and migrant status


    Level of national compliance with labour rights (freedom of association and collective bargaining) based on International Labour Organization (ILO) textual sources and national legislation, by sex and migrant status


    By 2030, devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products


    Tourism direct GDP as a proportion of total GDP and in growth rate


    Strengthen the capacity of domestic financial institutions to encourage and expand access to banking, insurance and financial services for all


    (a) Number of commercial bank branches per 100,000 adults and (b) number of automated teller machines (ATMs) per 100,000 adults


    Proportion of adults (15 years and older) with an account at a bank or other financial institution or with a mobile-money-service provider


    Increase Aid for Trade support for developing countries, in particular least developed countries, including through the Enhanced Integrated Framework for Trade-Related Technical Assistance to Least Developed Countries

    Aid for Trade commitments and disbursements


    By 2020, develop and operationalize a global strategy for youth employment and implement the Global Jobs Pact of the International Labour Organization


    Existence of a developed and operationalized national strategy for youth employment, as a distinct strategy or as part of a national employment strategy

    Goal 11

    Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

    Goal 11


    By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums


    Proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing


    By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons

    Proportion of population that has convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and persons with disabilities


    By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries

    Ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate


    Proportion of cities with a direct participation structure of civil society in urban planning and management that operate regularly and democratically


    Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage


    Total per capita expenditure on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage, by source of funding (public, private), type of heritage (cultural, natural) and level of government (national, regional, and local/municipal)


    By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations


    Number of deaths, missing persons and directly affected persons attributed to disasters per 100,000 population


    Direct economic loss attributed to disasters in relation to global domestic product (GDP)


    (a) Damage to critical infrastructure and (b) number of disruptions to basic services, attributed to disasters


    By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management


    Proportion of municipal solid waste collected and managed in controlled facilities out of total municipal waste generated, by cities


    Annual mean levels of fine particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5 and PM10) in cities (population weighted)


    By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities

    Average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities


    Proportion of persons victim of physical or sexual harassment, by sex, age, disability status and place of occurrence, in the previous 12 months


    Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning


    Number of countries that have national urban policies or regional development plans that (a) respond to population dynamics; (b) ensure balanced territorial development; and (c) increase local fiscal space


    By 2020, substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, resilience to disasters, and develop and implement, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, holistic disaster risk management at all levels


    Number of countries that adopt and implement national disaster risk reduction strategies in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030


    Proportion of local governments that adopt and implement local disaster risk reduction strategies in line with national disaster risk reduction strategies


    Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials

    Name Description
    Increased awareness of the many decent work deficits facing sanitation workers and the relevance and application of the fundamental principles and rights at work, national labour laws, and OSH principles to sanitation workers and the WASH sector.
    Better labour statistics on sanitation workers
    Greater knowledge-sharing through research and identification of challenges to decent work in the sanitation sector in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, including comparative analysis of national practices
    Skills development programmes promoted to improve sanitation workers' social and economic mobility, including active participation in the labour market
    Staff / Technical expertise
    ILO staff will be engaged to provide technical support
    No progress reports have been submitted. Please sign in and click here to submit one.
    Action Network
    water logo
    1. Africa
    2. Asia and Pacific
    3. Latin America and the Caribbean
    Other beneficiaries

    Sanitation workers and society will benefit from these initiatives. In the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.: “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he [she] doesn't do his job, diseases are rampant.” March 18, 1968, Memphis, TN.

    Website/More information
    Global Action Plan
    Contact Information

    Carlos, Specialist - Public services and utilities