Pakistan’s Most Oppressed and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By ICC’s Pakistan Correspondent

04/24/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)Like many other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed Pakistan and much of its population on lockdown. Over 7,000 positive cases have been confirmed as of mid-April in addition to 135 COVID-19 related deaths. Recently, Pakistan’s government extended the nationwide lockdown to April 30.

While the pandemic has affected many sectors of life, there are some still at work. The nation’s healthcare workers remain fighting on the frontlines of the epidemic. However, Pakistan’s most oppressed segment of society, sanitation workers, are also at work.

In Pakistan, Christians make up between 80% to 90% of the sanitation workforce, including the country’s street sweepers, janitors, and sewer workers. This percentage is an extreme over-representation as Pakistani Christians represent less than 2% of the country’s overall population.

As has been documented by International Christian Concern (ICC), this over-representation is due to discriminatory hiring practices. In many cases, job advertisements for sanitation positions, considered the lowest and filthiest, are reserved for non-Muslim applicants only.

Besides being relegated to the lowest and filthiest positions in the workforce, there are many other unseen cases of abuse suffered by these Christian sanitation workers.

The government has transferred much of the management of the sanitation workforce to private contractors. These contractors do not hire sanitation workers to permanent positions but offer temporary contacts that only guarantee work for several months. Salaries are meager. Safety equipment is not provided. And to top it off, the health of the sanitation workers is not considered.

I get 15,000 rupees ($91.00) per month and work for 12 hours a day,” Perveen Bibi, a Christian sanitation worker, recently told ICC. “However, we don’t get salaries on a monthly basis. It depends on the officer’s mood. Sometimes he pays us after two months, or it may even stretch to three months plus!

If we demand our pay and safety equipment, the officer just puts it on the government’s shoulders, and he does not take responsibility for it,” Bibi continued.

As temporary employees, the sanitation workers’ contracts expire every 88 days. They are then “rehired” every three months, again on temporary contracts. For many, this cycle goes on for decades until they are too feeble to work. No retirement benefits or pensions are offered. Sanitation workers get no days off, have no weekends, no holidays, and are not even allowed to take sick leave.

More abuses are now being laid bare amid the COVID-19 pandemic, even within Pakistan’s healthcare system.

Doctors in Punjab and Quetta have refused to go to work because of a lack of masks and other protective gear. However, at the same time, sanitation workers have been forced to continue their work, including in the nation’s hospitals. Much of this work is done by hand and with no protective gear.

We are not provided safety equipment in the hospital,” Saleem Masih, a Christian sanitation worker from a government-run hospital in Lahore, told ICC. “We are not considered human by management or treated equally to other staffers in the hospital.

We are scared of the coronavirus; however, we also need our jobs to feed our children,” Masih explained.

In normal times, Christian sanitation workers face discrimination and abuse as a part of their daily life. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, these vulnerable Christians are being forced to choose between their meager wages and exposure to the virus that has locked down nearly half the world.

Now, more than ever, the rights, safety, and health of Pakistan’s sanitation workforce must be considered. If not, these poor Christians, and the communities they are a part of, risk unjust exposure to COVID-19.

If you would like to support persecuted Christians affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, consider giving to ICC’s COVID-19 Crisis fund today.

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