Waste pickers should be seen as essential workers: New Frame

Waste pickers are everywhere and invisible at the same time. These efficient environmental workers operate on the fringes of society. Although they are at the heart of waste management processes around the world, recycling being one of the most economical and efficient ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they are often abused or even criminalized, by the public as well as by the authorities.

Eva Mokoena, 36, speaking at the Averda landfill in Selby, says it took some time to convince members of her community to respect her as a waste picker. The president of the African Reclaimers Organization (Aro), she says that “at the beginning, when they saw [me] Picking up and going into their trash cans, picking up trash, they were like, ‘Are you crazy? Why do you do that?'”

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Mokoena has been a waste picker for decades. She started around the age of 11 and has, since the age of 17, held several management positions. Aro, the organization she currently heads, recently received an award from the World Wildlife Fund for playing a pivotal role in recycling.

Once she explained to the people of Johannesburg that she was rummaging through their trash cans for recyclable materials, the outlook changed, she says. People began to separate the waste into recyclable and non-recyclable categories themselves, which saved time for him and other recyclers.

General contempt

Despite this positive change in mindset, Mokoena says some people still see them in a bad light. “Even here in the suburbs, whether you go in the trash or not, it doesn’t matter because you’re nobody to them,” she says.

This shouldn’t be the case because “there is less dirt from the work we do,” explains Mokoena.

Kopano Mokoena, 38, has been a waste picker for over six years. It echoes Eva’s sentiment about the public’s attitude towards them and the work they do. He says the public views waste pickers as drug addicts who shouldn’t be on the streets rummaging through trash and trying to survive.

“When you do this kind of work, people insult you and look down on you,” says Kopano.

It is not only South African waste pickers who face these problems. “Waste pickers are in no way recognized by the state or the private sector in Kenya,” says Elly Ogola of Kibera Waste Pickers in Nairobi.

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Ogola adds that “waste pickers are seen to be uneducated and less fortunate [members of] company, [even] although garbage collection is like any other job with the aim of increasing income ”.

The situation is no different for waste pickers in Lagos. Oku Friday, from the Nigerian National Scrap and Waste Workers Union, said: “Garbage collectors in Lagos are the most ailing and intimidated group of informal workers. [They are abused and even arrested and detained] by law enforcement and government officials.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated matters in Nigeria’s largest city. Informal waste pickers have been banned from operating, said Friday. But the waste pickers organized and linked with other organizations and eventually forced the government to engage with them. These workers want to operate without harassment. They also wish to be formally integrated into the city’s waste management system.

Eva says the situation is worse for women waste pickers. “Some men treat us like we are nothing. We are harassed. [Men] make us feel like we are nothing, forgetting that we have the same strength [as them] because we’re doing the same job, ”she says.

She adds that for “women waking up at 3 a.m. [and having to walk] only ‘security is a big issue. They risk being raped, stolen or both every time they go to do their jobs.

Worse still, “in the landfills, even in the streets, there are no toilets. If you want to pee, you have to cover yourself with a large plastic bag, ”explains Eva.

“Essential workers”

While waste pickers provide a public service to society, they operate outside the public sector. The majority of waste pickers are just ordinary people who work alone for a living. Climate subsidies are not intended for them either.

Waste pickers around the world are proving they are essential workers. They are also at the forefront of the fight against rampant pollution and, by extension, climate change. Standing in their way is not only discrimination, but also privatization and the lack of political will of governments to integrate them into formal waste management systems. Waste pickers remain outside the remuneration frameworks of the municipalities.

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In April 2021, for example, the City of Johannesburg wanted to impose a recycling tariff on residences. Aro opposed it because the waste pickers who do 90% of the city’s recycling were not going to get a dime out of it. With the support of the locals, Aro triumphed and the city had to abandon the proposed tariff.

Despite this, waste pickers have yet to be integrated into the city’s waste management program. “In our local municipalities there is a lot of corruption. When tenders come in, especially when it comes to waste, you will find that we as waste pickers get nothing. But some of the people who don’t even know how to work with the waste benefit, ”says Eva.

Legal obstacles

“The river is for the fisherman, just as recyclables are for the garbage collector. If the fisherman loses access to the river or the sea, he loses everything. If a waste picker loses access to recyclable materials, he loses everything, ”says Federico Parra, of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (Wiego) and waste picker organizer in Bogota, Colombia.

Real access to recyclable materials is the universal struggle of waste pickers around the world. Especially the landfill space – where they can access and sort waste before selling it. Privatization is at the heart of this problem, says Parra.

The Colombian government in the early 2000s passed a series of anti-waste picker laws. Recyclable materials have become the property of the private sector. Waste pickers were not allowed to pick up waste in towns with more than 8,000 inhabitants.

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Waste pickers organized and challenged the laws up to the Colombian Constitutional Court. In 2003, the court ruled in favor of the waste collectors, ruling that waste collection was a profession that had to be integrated into the waste management systems of cities.

Although the situation is far from ideal, it was still an important step towards improving the lot of garbage collectors in Colombia, says Parra.

Fight against privatization

In South Africa, the situation is no different.

In 2018, waste pickers were evicted from the Genesis landfill in Johannesburg by the Red Ants, a notorious company specializing in evictions and removals. Averda, a waste management and recycling company headquartered in Dubai, had secured a ban, on an ex parte basis, in a ruling without giving the respondents (the waste pickers, in this case) an opportunity to seek a legal representation and respond.

Averda obtained ownership of the Genesis landfill in 2016. They argued for the right to be the only ones on the site “because they owned the space.” To further justify their position, they told the court there was violence among waste pickers at the site. The company argued that this posed a danger to its employees.

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With the help of Wiego and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, the waste pickers were able to challenge this order. When the Johannesburg High Court heard the case, it was revealed that Averda had not disclosed all the facts as required by law in the ex parte claims.

The court overturned the ban on the grounds that Averda had omitted important facts. The court further said it would have come to a different conclusion had it known that the waste pickers had been working in the landfill for more than 17 years. More than 30 waste pickers had access cards and Averda was aware of their presence in the landfill, but they withheld this information.

The solution? Space

Waste pickers around the world have solutions to their immediate problems. Those in power need to listen and take their concerns seriously. Market access and recognition are among the essential elements that governments must implement, according to Friday.

“The government must give us space. We don’t need the money. If the government can give us sorting space and transportation, we [would be] installed. We can do everything ourselves, ”explains Eva.

Ogola agrees, saying that “the government should set aside common ground for garbage collectors to dispose of collected garbage and also sort and work without interference.”

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More than anything, waste pickers demand respect from all walks of life.

“All the communities and individuals who have waste pickers working in their spaces, their suburbs and even their location, just take the time to talk to the person. Know your waste picker – we are not strangers, we are not thugs, we are just human beings making a living, ”explains Eva.

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