A week after the central government announced a lockdown on March 24 to contain the spread of COVID-19, Savita (24)*, a sanitation worker in Narasimhanaickenpalayam located on the outskirts of Coimbatore, shared her fears regarding stepping out to go to work with Kaviya V J from the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation and Support Programme (TNUSSP).

A team of officials from the TNUSSP met Savita when they were in Coimbatore to survey the access to social security schemes among sanitation workers.

“Savita told us about her fear of going out to work. She was scared of the risk involved in cleaning the streets and was worried that if she contracted the virus, she might endanger her children’s lives,” said one of the officials who was part of the team.

Unlike other COVID-19 warriors including doctors, nurses, and police officers, who are educated and well aware of the risks they face, several sanitation workers like her lack basic knowledge about the virus.

While town panchayats have ensured that these workers wear face masks and gloves while on duty, they lacked awareness about the pandemic.

According to the Tamil Nadu government, 64,583 sanitary workers are employed with 15 corporations, 121 municipalities, 528 town panchayats, and 12,525 village panchayats in the state.

Since most of the sanitary workers are deployed on a contract basis, officials in local bodies said the actual number of sanitary workers would be around 1.5 lakh people.

Savita, one such contract worker at the town panchayat, has been on the frontline, working from 6 am to 6 pm every day. Ever since the lockdown was enforced, she has had her meals at the local panchayat office, which provided breakfast and lunch for the workers.

Realising that the sanitary workers’ knowledge about COVID-19 was limited, TNUSSP arranged a counselling session to allay the fears of sanitation workers.

During the counselling session held last month, details about the spread of the virus and the precautionary measures that sanitation workers and their family members had to take were explained to these workers.

S Saranya, an independent counsellor, spent at least 15 to 20 minutes with each sanitation worker, listening and talking about their physical and mental well-being.

“During the session with sanitation workers, I realized they were not aware of the spread of COVID-19 and the necessary precautions they needed to take,” said Saranya.

“Several workers had left the hand sanitisers given to them at their houses,” she added.

Apart from face mask and hand sanitizers, the workers were provided with Kabasura kudineer to improve their immunity. The state government had also announced a solatium of ₹50 lakh and a job to the kin of frontline workers who die in the COVID-19 battle.

The counsellor also found that several women sanitation workers were more receptive to the counselling and open to discuss their issues than their male counterparts. “Most of the women workers were married young,” said Saranya. “They openly discussed the personal issues they were facing and their physical ailments.”

According to officials in the local bodies, a few workers in major cities including Chennai, Coimbatore, and Madurai were reluctant to come to work after finding that sanitary workers have been infected with COVID-19.

“We know that we would also get infected by the virus someday. But, we did not want to risk our children’s life. We don’t mind risking ourselves, but our concern is about our children, who are preparing for their Class 10 and Class 12 exams,” said K Govindhan, a sanitary worker in Chennai.

Govindhan further said he has been taking all the precautionary measures that the government had recommended.

“But, the people who were infected with the virus too had been following all the protocols. So, there is no guarantee that we will not get infected if we wear masks and wash our hands frequently,” he said.

However, since they had limited resources and opportunities, Govindhan and a few others who were reluctant to step out, continue to go to work with fear in their minds.

“We even thought of giving up this job. But, there is no hope of finding any job after this. I have been working as a sanitary worker for about seven years and if I move now to some other profession, I may not be able to help my family with the money I get there. So, I continue to work, but there is a fear in me,” said S Ganesan, a sanitary worker in Chennai.

A permanent worker earns about ₹23,000 per month and gets an increment of minimum ₹2,500 every year, while a contract worker gets only ₹379 as wages per day.

According to sanitary workers who are employed through contracts, they received a hike last year of ₹17 to their daily wage of ₹379 per day.

Of 23,000 sanitary workers in Chennai, only 6,401 are permanent workers while the rest are contract workers. “For any contract worker, there is no job guarantee, and our work solely depends on the contractor. Only if the contractor offers a job, we will be able to work, otherwise we won’t be able to,” said a contract worker who wished to remain anonymous.