A human rights body has launched a campaign to raise awareness of discriminatory advertisements for the recruitment of sanitary workers in Pakistan.

The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) campaign, initiated in Islamabad on 25 January, criticises advertisements for sanitation workers and other low-paid, menial work that stipulate applicants must be non-Muslim.

The NCHR also alleges that this practice is undertaken by provincial governments and other agencies in order to meet a federal requirement that five per cent of government jobs must be held by religious minorities while preventing Christians and other religious minority persons from applying for jobs at higher levels.

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Rabiya Javeri Agha, Chairperson of the National Commission for Human Rights, speaks on behalf of sanitary workers at a consultation in Islamabad on 25 January [Image credit: UCA News]

Hundreds of posts assigned to minorities at higher levels remain unfilled.

As an impartial state body, the NCHR works independently of the government and is directly accountable to the Parliament of Pakistan.

NCHR Chairperson Rabiya Javeri Agha said the commission intended to bring legal proceedings against the government to remove discriminatory language in advertisements for employment of sanitary workers.

Speaking at a consultation entitled “Stop systemic discrimination against minorities” held with civil society representatives, Agha asserted, “Advertising non-Muslim as a qualifying condition for sanitation jobs is an example of systemic discrimination.”

Agha challenged, “Eighty per cent of sanitation workers are Christians whereas they are only 1.5 percent of the total population. Why only sanitation?” She added that as of 2021, there were 29,692 vacant minority posts of different grades for recruitment across Pakistan.

Other instances of discrimination included Christians and other minorities being regularly categorised as “daily wagers” rather than employees of municipal corporations, a distinction that constitutes a denial of their basic labour rights.

Agha highlighted the lack of provision of PPE or masks for workers descending into the sewage system. Emergency staff tasked with rescuing workers, she added, “often refuse to go into sewage systems, leaving the bodies of workers, both dead and near death, for other community members to remove”.

The NCHR screened a film underlining the plight of families of two sanitation workers  ̶  Nadeem Masih and Faisal Masih  ̶  who died in a poisonous sewer in Sargodha, Punjab province, in October 2021.

Sweepers Are Superheroes, Pakistan’s first advocacy campaign to challenge social attitudes towards sanitary workers and call for their improved working conditions, praised the NCHR’s findings.

“It is humbling to see that the commission has finally decided to take it up. It’s time for Pakistan to eliminate discrimination based on work and descent,” said lawyer Mary James Gill, who set up the campaign in 2019.

Give thanks for the NCHR initiative and pray that adverts requiring sanitary workers to be members of religious minorities will be outlawed. Ask that Christians will no longer be viewed as unclean, fit only for dirty and dangerous jobs, but as equal and valued members of Pakistani society. Pray also for greater employment opportunities for our brothers and sisters, and that conditions for all sanitary workers will be improved.