Expectations of Justice Low for Grieving Family of Street Sweeper in Pakistan

Christian sanitation workers face dangers from roads and coronavirus.

Ashiq Masih in hospital after police vehicle struck him in Gujranwala, Pakistan. (Morning Star News)

Ashiq Masih in hospital after police vehicle struck him in Gujranwala, Pakistan. (Morning Star News)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – When a Christian sanitation worker died after a police car struck him last week in Gujranwala, Pakistan, officers compensated his impoverished family with the equivalent of US$620.

Rights advocates fear the Christian family likely will be forced to pardon the driver.

The case typifies the discrimination and dangers that street sweepers face in Pakistan, a country with a 96-percent Muslim population where only non-Muslims – mostly Christians – are hired to pick up garbage from the roads.

“The government announced the measly monetary compensation only after the Christians raised this issue on social media, otherwise this incident too would have been swept under the rug as always,” Mary James Gill, executive director of the Centre for Law and Justice, told Morning Star News. “It’s unfortunate that the government continues to ignore the plight of the Christian sanitation workers, who are doing their jobs on the roads with full commitment amid the coronavirus pandemic, and that too without any protective gear.”

Ashiq Masih, a 56-year-old Catholic working as a contract employee for the Gujranwala Municipal Corporation in Punjab Province, was picking up roadside garbage on April 24 when a police vehicle speeding the wrong way on a one-way street struck him at full force, critically injuring the father of three.

With several fractures in both legs and internal injuries, he was rushed to the Civil Hospital Gujranwala, where doctors recommended immediate transfer to the Mayo Hospital in Lahore. He died a few hours later at the Mayo Hospital, his brother Waris Masih said.

Police registered a First Information Report (FIR No. 407/20) on the complaint of the deceased’s son, Qaiser Ashiq, and arrested the driver of the police van, Muhammad Inayat. He was charged with causing hurt by rash or negligent driving under the Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 337-G, punishable by up to five years in prison, and under Section 279, which pertains to rash driving endangering human life and is punishable by up to two years in prison.

“Ashiq’s family is entitled to be paid at least 3.3 million rupees [US$20,440) in blood money under the Islamic laws of Qisas and Diyat, but I don’t think the police will pay them even a penny more from what they have already paid in the heat of the situation,” Lahore High Court Advocate Lazar Allah Rakha told Morning Star News.

Soon after the police vehicle struck Masih, officers arrived at his house and handed his wife 20,000 rupees (US$124) for her husband’s treatment, Waris Masih said.

“When news reached here that my brother had passed away, the police again visited our house and handed us 30,000 rupees [US$186],” he said. “The same evening, Gujranwala Deputy Commissioner Suhail Ashraf visited us and gave us 10 bags of food ration on behalf of the government. He also announced a compensation of 100,000 rupees (US$620) and said that Ashiq’s youngest son would be hired in his father’s position.”

Attorney Rakha said he believes police most likely will succeed in pressuring the family to pardon the accused driver. He added that a tough legal battle would have to be fought to get police to pay adequate compensation to the deceased’s family.

The driver of the police vehicle was reportedly under the influence of alcohol when it struck Masih. Officials at Baghbanpura police station in Gujranwala declined to comment on this allegation to Morning Star News.

Coronavirus Dangers

Christians make up most of the sanitation workers in Pakistan.

Gill of the Centre for Law and Justice, a former provincial lawmaker, said that garbage pick-up is not considered “dangerous work” by government authorities, but that Lahore Waste Management Company statistics show at least 70 sanitation workers died while working in 2019, most of them in road accidents. No data is available on whether compensation was paid to the families of deceased workers, she added.

Few sweepers work as regular employees, which would entitle them to compensation in case of death or injury, said Gill, who heads a “Sweepers Are Superheros” advocacy campaign against unfair conditions and attitudes towards sweepers in Pakistan.

Sanitation workers fared better when they were employed by the government, she said.

“When the government privatized sanitation work in three major cities of Punjab – Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan – only a few sanitation workers remained on the government’s payroll, while all others, especially the younger lot, were engaged by the companies on temporary contracts without any health or life insurance and provident fund,” she told Morning Star News. “The situation is not very different in the other cities where sanitation work is still under the government’s control, because a large number of workers are kept on contracts for years without regularization of their services.”

Although Ashiq Masih was working for the Gujranwala Municipal Corporation, he was a contract employee and therefore not entitled to government compensation, Gill said.

“The police will eventually elicit a pardon from the family, and the accused will walk free, but is a poor sanitary worker’s life worth only 100,000 rupees [$620] in the eyes of the government?” she said.

The government’s attitude towards sanitation workers in Punjab Province was also evident by its deploying only Christian workers in hospital wards and quarantine facilities dealing with the novel coronavirus, Gill said.

“Christian sanitation staff have been delegated the duties of keeping the wards clean, administering medicines to patients and serving them food,” she told Morning Star News. “Even though the government has provided face masks and gloves to the workers, how can it justify putting their lives at serious risk of contracting the deadly disease without paying them any risk allowance or life insurance, as it has announced for doctors and other paramedical staff?

“Masih’s family will be fortunate if they are paid some compensation, but what about the families of all other sanitation workers whose lives have been intentionally put at risk because they are too weak to speak up for themselves?”

Sanitation workers are among the most invisible and neglected people in society, according to a report entitled, “Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers,” released in November 2019 by the World Bank, World Health Organization, International Labour Organization and WaterAid.

“These workers are often the most marginalized, poor and discriminated-against members of society who carry out their jobs with no equipment, protection or legal rights, often violating their dignity and human rights,” the report states. “It is only when those critical services fail, when society is confronted with fecal waste in ditches, streets, rivers, and beaches or occasional media reports of sanitation worker deaths, that the daily practice and plight of sanitation workers come to light.”

Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors 2020 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, and on Nov. 28, 2018, the United States added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom.

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