Access to sanitation for transport workers is as much about curbing Covid-19 as it is about dignity

Today, 19 November, is World Toilet Day (WTD). It is not the most glamourous day on the calendar, but it is a crucial one, reminding us that billions of people globally continue to be deprived of their right to health and sanitation.

This year, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, WTD takes on additional significance. While some of us still in employment have been able to work from home, most transport workers are not afforded that luxury. They have worked day in and day out to keep the world going, moving medicine, key workers, food and other essential goods, to ensure continuity in global supply chains.

At the same time, the pandemic is exacerbating and exposing workers’ lack of access to sanitation facilities. Public toilets and cafés have closed, and employers have shirked their responsibility to provide adequate amenities. Truck drivers moving goods across Europe who can no longer use truck stop facilities are resorting to urinating in bottles or bushes. Workers across our global network report being forced to “hold it in” or deliberately dehydrate themselves to avoid needing the toilet. Some even resort to adult nappies, or soil themselves on the job, and urinary tract infections are commonplace. Menstruating seafarers unable to disembark cargo ships because of lockdowns are having to keep working without sanitary products. Is it right that we thank our vital workers by denying them vital services?

As well as being an affront on their personal dignity, the health risks of inadequate sanitation facilities put both transport workers and the public at heightened risk of transmittable diseases like Covid-19.

It is well documented that transport workers across the world have, alongside other key workers, have paid a disproportionate price in the pandemic, with infection and mortality rates significantly higher than in the general population. In London alone, 45 transport workers have died from Covid-19. Along with other protective measures, ensuring workers have regular access to private, clean and safe toilets facilities can save lives.

Women, transgender and non-binary workers are particularly affected, as the lack of designated female or gender-neutral toilets exposes them to gender-based violence. It also creates an additional barrier to employment for women in an industry that is heavily gender segregated and male dominated. This is to say nothing of the toll that the lack of facilities takes on mental health.

Global call for action

As the voice for nearly 20 million transport workers worldwide, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is demanding action to ensure that women and men workers have the access to sanitation facilities that they are entitled to. On WTD last year, the ITF launched the Transport Workers’ Sanitation Charter, calling for global action from governments, employers and international bodies on safe access to decent sanitary facilities at work. The charter has only become even more urgent as a way to help stem further spread of the virus.

WTD is an opportunity for ITF to remind transport companies, investors and governments of the urgent need for adequate sanitation facilities for transport workers, the specific needs of women, transgender and non-binary workers, and of the ITF Sanitation Charter, which outlines the measures needed to protect the health and safety of transport workers. Its recommendations are especially pertinent given the technical review into increasing the accessibility and provision of public toilets currently being undertaken by the British government.

Among the key actions identified, both employers and governments must develop gender-sensitive policies and guidelines on the prevention of Covid-19 in workplaces, paying particular attention to worker access to adequate washing and sanitary facilities when they need to, during their working day.

Investors in transport should meanwhile incorporate the rights to water and adequate sanitation into projects and loan programmes that are being implemented in response to the crisis.

We urge employers and the relevant authorities to heed these recommendations, ensure their workers’ dignity, and help reduce the spread of Covid-19. Transport employers – including warehousing and logistic companies – need to do right by their workers and ensure that moving forward, all workers have adequate access to toilets and sanitation facilities. Pandemic or not, the transport workers keeping our communities going deserve access to proper toilets and sanitation facilities.

This WTD, spare a thought for the drivers, warehouse staff, aviation workers, dockers and seafarers who are so crucial to successfully responding to Covid-19. It is time for their need for the toilet, their dignity, and their health, to be taken seriously.