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Published on: 13/10/2015

We Serve with a Smile. Photo: World Toilet Organization

Dying to go

The lack of access to safe sanitary facilities for workers is “demeaning, debasing and dehumanising” [1].

Ugandan officer worker Carol Nampiina was dismayed because her new workplace had no sanitary bin. When she got her period, she had to wrap up her used pad and keep it in her bag until she got home late in the evening to dispose of it [2].

Ebor Ofem, a 27 year-old Nigerian factory worker, needed to go. A senior staff member refused to give the toilet key when Ebor asked for it. There was only one functioning toilet in the factory and that was reserved for staff. Ebor was a lowly casual worker. He had no other choice than to go outside. As he crouched against a fence to defecate, he was electrocuted. The fence had been secured with live electric cables [3].

Last year Andrew Lane was found dead in the back of an enclosed work truck in Oregon, USA.  He had stepped in the truck to defecate in a bucket, the only on-the-job "toilet" option that his employer provided him with. The bucket was next to a gas-powered power washer that spewed deadly carbon monoxide into the air [1].

The WASH Pledge

A growing number of businesses have committed to provide their employees, who work in offices, factories and mobile sites all over the world, with safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities. Among them are several Fortune Global 500 companies. Don’t they already provide decent restrooms for their employees? “Of course”, says Carlo Galli, Technical Manager for Water Resources at Nestlé, “but there is always room for improvement”. Nestlé is now for example making sure that all their buildings have at least one toilet for the disabled. 

WASH Plesge banner

Mr. Galli is co-chair of the “WASH Pledge for Access to safe Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at the Workplace”, an initiative of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). He was instrumental in the development of the WASH Pledge Self-Assessment Tool [4]. The tool not only inspired Nestlé to introduce toilets for the disabled in all premises under its control but also to strengthen WASH awareness raising programmes for all employees. When a small sales office was found not to meet the minimum WASH Pledge standard, the company decided to relocate it elsewhere.

Work camp sanitation and water facilities at Nam Theun II dam project site, Laos. Photo: EDF

One of the first signatories, Electricité de France (EDF), has written a detailed case study on how it applied the Pledge in the Nam Theun II dam project in Laos. It gives a practical example of providing access to safe WASH services in mobile remote worksites [5].

Moving up the value chain

Two years after its launch in September 2013, 36 companies have signed the WASH Pledge. The latest signatories include Jain Irrigation in India, BMW and the Indonesian-based Sintesa Group. All together they represent a combined workforce of 1.8 million women and men [6].

Implementing WASH across the value chain. Courtesy: WBCSD

Although the Pledge itself limits itself to WASH services for employees, businesses are encouraged to promote it throughout their value chain from suppliers to employee homes and communities. 

By 2016, Nestlé will provide WASH services to 450,000 people (100,000 more than its original target) in local communities around its manufacturing facilities and in Farmer Connect areas. Local staff, such as those at Nestlé Panama, organised WASH awareness raising training for tier 1 suppliers.

In Laos, Electricité de France (EDF) provided access to safe WASH services to around 132,000 people displaced by the Nam Theun II dam [5].

Nestlé’s Supplier Code stipulates that the provision of potable drinking water and sanitation in the workplace is a minimum requirement [7]. In the longer term, it would be good to link the WASH Pledge principles to the Code, says Carlo Galli. Right now it is not feasible, he believes, because the compliance burden of the full Code is already very high for suppliers.

Getting SMEs on board

More than 95% of enterprises across are the world are SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) accounting for approximately 60% of private sector employment [8]. We need SMEs on board to achieve safe WASH for all in the workplace.

It is therefore good to see that two SMEs recently signed the WASH Pledge: BankaBioLoo from India and the Mauritius-based Archemics. As a leading local supplier of industrial and domestic detergents, Archemics is committed to reduce its water footprint and to raise awareness about hygiene in Mauritius, especially among their customers in the hotel and food industry.

Volunteers deep cleaning workers toilets on 5S Day. Photo: Nidhi Ramlogun / Archemics

“We have recently completed our WASH assessment using the WBCSD-WASH self assessment tool and are complementing it with a 5S audit”, says Archemics Quality Manager Nidhi Ramlogun.

“Next year we intend to invest in our employee toilet facilities”, Ms Ramlogun adds. “The WASH initiative has prompted us to come up with formal potable water testing across the year. We used to do the same on an ad-hoc basis”.

Moving forward

If all WBCSD members were to sign the Pledge, 15 million employees would have access to safe WASH at the workplace. "These companies have a unique opportunity to show that WASH at the workplace is a non-negotiable issue that contributes to workforce productivity and well-being", says Sara Traubel of WBCSD. The Pledge also offers a unique opportunity to generate a large data set for research on the impact of improved WASH at the workplace on productivity.

On World Toilet Day 2015, the CEOs of some of the world's leading companies appeared in a WBSCD video call to action for  WASH at the worlkplace: Paul Bulcke (CEO, Nestlé), Tom Albanese (CEO, Vedanta Resources), Nick Blazquez (President for Africa and Asia Pacific, Diageo) and Paul Polman (CEO, Unilever and Chairman, WBCSD).

Arguably, the biggest gains will occur if SMEs in the supply chain improve WASH services for their employees. Including clear WASH requirements in Supplier Codes is a powerful instrument to make this happen. Pledge signatories could use their expertise to support compliance of their suppliers.

“Forerunners show the way”, says Nestlé’s Carlo Galli. “We feel that our example will help other companies to do the same and join the journey”. Indeed, decent WASH services in the workplace is a cause worth promoting. For workers like Ebor Ofem and Andrew Lane it was a matter of life or death.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Sara Traubel (WBCSD), Carlo Galli (Nestlé) and Nidhi Ramlogun (Archemics) for contributing to this article.


[1] Death of worker told to use bucket as toilet spurs $4 million lawsuit, Oregon Live, 13 May 2015

[2] Uganda: The agony of being female, East African Business Week (Kampala) /, 28 Jan 2008

[3] Lack of functional toilet causes factory worker's electrocution, Vanguard, 27 Mar 2013

[4] WASH Pledge Self-Assessment Tool for Business

[5] EDF, 2014. Water, sanitation and hygiene for employees : The Nam Theun II experience

[6] Corporate WASH Pledge secures access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene for 1.6 million people worldwide, WBCSD, 18 Aug 2015

[7] Nestlé, 2013.  The Nestlé supplier code

[8] Ayyagari, M. et al., 2011, Small vs. young firms across the world : contribution to employment, job creation, and growth, (Policy research working paper 5631. World Bank Development Research Group. DOI:10.1596/1813-9450-5631


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