5 Christian sanitation workers die in Pakistan; relatives stage protest for safety provisions

Christian devotees attend a Palm Sunday service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral church during the government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Lahore on April 5, 2020.
Christian devotees attend a Palm Sunday service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral church during the government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Lahore on April 5, 2020. | ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

LAHORE, Pakistan — Five Christian sanitation workers in Pakistan have died since Tuesday from inhaling toxic gases, highlighting how they are forced to work without proper safety equipment, sources said.

Irfan Masih, Ratan Masih and Babar Masih succumbed on Wednesday to the poisonous gases while cleaning a sewer disposal well in the Satellite Town area of Bhalwal in Sargodha District, Punjab Province. A fourth Christian worker, Naeem Masih, was in critical condition at Sargodha District Headquarters Hospital.

In Sindh Province, Christians Yunus Hidayat and Yunus Masih and a Hindu, Badal Gujrati died on Tuesday after they inhaled toxic gases

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The tragedy in Punjab Province struck when a supervisor forced the workers to enter a well without proper safety equipment. Families of the deceased workers later staged a protest by placing the workers’ bodies in front of the Bhalwal municipal office.

The protesters demanded Punjab Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz Sharif order an inquiry and take action against those responsible for the deaths. They also demanded the government provide safety equipment to sewer workers, lamenting that dozens have died due to toxic gases without any action taken to address the dangers.

“Our brothers continue to die in manholes. but their deaths have failed to move the government,” said Sikandar Farman, a Christian who was formerly a member of the Bhalwal Municipal Committee. “How many more lives will it take for the authorities to understand the plight of these workers?”

Punjab Minister for Minority Affairs Ramesh Singh Arora said the government regretted the deaths of the workers and would ensure provision of the safety equipment.

“This is a very unfortunate incident, and Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz Sharif has announced a compensation of 3 million Pakistani Rupees [US$10,765) for the victims,” Arora told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “She has also sought a report on the incident from the authorities concerned.”

He added that the government directed doctors to ensure best possible medical treatment for Naeem Masih and wished him an early recovery.

Deaths in Sindh Province

A day before the deaths in Bhalwal, two Christians and a Hindu died of asphyxia while cleaning a clogged manhole in Tando Muhammad Khan town in Hyderabad, Sindh Province.

Christians Yunus Hidayat and Yunus Masih, and a Hindu, Badal Gujrati, were cleaning a gutter near a mosque when they inhaled toxic gases and died. Masih left behind his wife and five children, while Hidayat was married but living alone. Gujrati is survived by his wife and an 18-month-old son, sources said.

The deaths triggered angry protest by relatives, who staged a sit-in that blocked the Tando Mohammad Khan-Badin road for four hours, severely disrupting traffic. Seven protesters, including three women, fainted due to the scorching heat during the blockade.

Tando Muhammad Khan Municipal Committee Chairman Syed Shahnawaz Shah told protesters the government would provide compensation of 300,000 rupees (US$1,077) for each deceased worker and promised jobs for their heirs. He promised further compensation from the Sindh government, after which the protesters dispersed.

Shah said at a later press conference the formation of a seven-member committee to investigate the deaths.

Marginalized Christians in Muslim-majority Pakistan often work the lowest paid, dirtiest and most dangerous jobs without proper protective equipment. Rights activists say that despite repeated assurances by the government, working conditions of sewer workers have shown no improvement.

“Such incidents involving sanitary workers are not new; they have been happening for years,” said Sunil Gulzar, a Christian working for the rights of sanitation workers. “Many sewer workers have died or suffered serious and disabling injuries or health problems because they were not provided with safety equipment.”

Gulzar told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News that sanitation workers were one of the most marginalized segments of Pakistani society.

“We have been making efforts for years to persuade the government to provide special protection gear to these workers, but all we get is assurances,” he said. “It seems as if the lives of these workers do not matter to the state.”

Christian sanitation workers Shan and Asif Masih died from toxic gases on March 17 in Faisalabad.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.

Originally published at Christian Daily InternationalMorning Star News

Christian Daily International provides biblical, factual and personal news, stories and perspectives from every region, focusing on religious freedom, holistic mission and other issues relevant for the global Church today.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit's mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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