Cleaning sewers remains a job for Christians in Muslim-majority Pakistan

By Jaime León

Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Aug 27 (efe-epa).- James Masih makes a living cleaning in Pakistan’s Rawalpindi city, a work mostly done by the Christians in this Muslim-majority nation.

The 40-year-old descends into a manhole and begins to put a smelly, black substance, stones, and other remains into a bucket. When the bucket is full, his partner pulls it up with a rope and empties it on the ground.

“I am in shit. In the beginning, it felt so bad getting into the hole but with the passage of time I became used to it,” James, who has been in the profession for 14 years, told EFE.

“I get sick sometimes because of this,” added the father-of-five who earns PKR 18,000 ($107) a month.

James is Christian, just like the 76 cleaners of the Water and Sanitation Agency of Rawalpindi, which is adjacent to Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad and has a population of two million.

His partner, Boota Masih, 50, has been in the profession for 30 years.

“Sometimes, when I go home my family complains (that) I am smelling bad. If you work with shit it would smell bad, of course,” he said.

“I hate it (the work),” added the worker, who earns more than his colleague, 42,000 rupees a month, and has five children.

Sometimes passersby spit on the cleaners when they’re inside the sewers, in a show of contempt.

Moreover, their work is dangerous. The non-profit Sweepers Are Superheroes estimates that 12 sewage cleaners died on the job in 2019 due to the build-up of toxic gases in the tunnels.

The interviews with the workers were conducted in the presence of two superiors and they wore work coveralls, gloves, and masks.

However, several cleaners said that the gear is not used and one supervisor admitted that that was the case.

“Usually, we don’t have anything to wear or for our safety. What I can tell you about this job is that I say it’s the hardest job one does in his life. It may look easy but when you hold human waste in your hands that is the hardest thing to do,” said a cleaner, who preferred to remain anonymous.

All the cleaners are Christians. Sweepers Are Superheroes estimates that 80 percent of sewer cleaners and almost all sweepers in the Asian country are Christians, who account for 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s 207 million inhabitants, the vast majority of them Muslims.

Sometimes, even job advertisements indicate that only Christians are sought for this work, even when it comes to state agencies or the army.

“We are all human and while doing this work I think if we are children of a lesser God,” a cleaner told EFE on grounds of anonymity.

Waris Sotra, a supervisor at Rawalpindi’s Water and Sanitation Agency, says that Christians are preferred for this work because they are a minority and are less educated than Muslims.

“Christians do it because they are a minority and a small community so they do this happily,” said the official, who is also a Christian.

Mary Gill, director of Sweepers Are Superheroes, an organization working to improve the plight of these workers, disagrees.

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