The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
Supported by Logo WIEGO


November 13, 2011

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This column will be a regular feature for waste pickers and support organizations who are helping waste pickers to organize themselves. In each newsletter we will include some organizing tips.

RRR waste picker network meeting in Tshwane. Photo credit: Melanie Samson.

By Chris Bonner, Director, WIEGO Organization and Representation Programme

Why organize?

Quite simply waste pickers want to see real, immediate, concrete improvements in their lives. They also want to feel a sense of their own power. In experiencing this power, waste pickers will find they change important power relationships.

Every waste picker knows what they need to fight for and what would make a difference in their lives. This may be easy access to waste or becoming part of local government waste systems. Or perhaps waste pickers want to move beyond picking to different forms of recycling as well as fair prices for these recyclables.

Other waste pickers may want to end their exploitation, dependency and fear of middlemen and be able to negotiate and sell directly to buyers to achieve a better and more secure income.

Yet other waste pickers may want to end the competition between themselves which brings stress and unpleasantness to their work and undermines the potential for collective action. They may realize that organising into some kind of association or collective could bring new friendship and solidarity amongst fellow workers.

Many waste pickers worry about children working on landfills, especially their own children. Many waste pickers want to see good laws that protect children and allow them to go to school and develop their talents.

Other waste pickers may want access to good health facilities and pensions.

And finally every waste collector wants people to acknowledge them as useful workers that deserve to be treated with respect.

So there are many reasons to organize but how to go about this? The first step is to build and maintain a democratic organization.

Building organization

Building an organisation is much more than just recruiting and growing membership. Members of an organisation need to ensure that the organization lasts. This means that its members must run and control it through democratic structures and processes.Waste pickers’organisation must be open to and represent the interests of all waste pickers regardless of their gender, race or nationality.

A democratic, member-based workers’ organisation can take many different forms.

It can, for example be a trade union, an association, a network or a worker cooperative. It can be small or large, local, national or international. Its members may be waste pickers, formal workers or a mix of both. Whatever its form or its name, the organization must be based on strong, democratic grassroots structures that meet regularly maybe at a landfill site or perhaps a regular meeting of street collectors in a park.

The organization must be led by a leadership that is elected by its members and it must be accountable to the members. The organization must decide on a clear purpose with sound values and principles.

Building organization: challenges

It is never easy to run a democratic membership-based organisation. Because the members are the owners, the managers and the beneficiaries, decision-making is often slow and complicated and administration and management may not be efficient.

Below are three of the challenges waste collectors may face in building organization. It is important to be open about these challenges so members can discuss them in the organization and find ways of dealing with them.

Challenge 1: Choosing right kind of leader

These are some of the types of leaders to avoid:

  • Leaders from organisations with a history of weak and undemocratic practices.
  • People who only want to further their own interests.
  • People who are corrupt, and maybe even in the pockets of politicians or criminals.
  • Men in a situation where the majority of members are women.

Challenge 2: Developing skills and knowledge to run organization

Many waste pickers have had little opportunity to acquire a good education and formal skills. They often lack the confidence and experience to run their organisations well.

Challenge 3: Enough money to carry out the objectives of organization

Membership-based organisations rely on fees paid by their members. Waste pickers cannot pay high or regular subscription fees. It is difficult to collect subscriptions regularly because members are poor and are scattered, as in the case of street pickers’, and they lack financial facilities.

However, as waste pickers are engaged in income generating work there are also creative ways in which they can generate income for their organizations. For example, at one landfill in Pretoria organized waste picker members collect glass collectively and use the money earned from the sale of glass to finance the organization’s activities.

But these challenges can be overcome if the waste pickers organization holds meetings where everyone puts forward their ideas on what to do and how to go about doing it.

In the next waste pickers’ newsletter this column will talk more about selecting good leadership.

Organizations and Organizing

Democratic worker organizations, in this case waste picker organizations, bring workers with a similar occupation, common interests and issues together, in a structured and democratic form, with the purpose of using their collective power to challenge and change their position in society.

The organization may focus on using collective power to further their economic/business interests, such as in a cooperative, or on defending and advancing their rights and status as workers, such as in a trade union. Often it combines these two purposes, within a co-op or a union, or other democratic organizational form such as self help groups and associations.

Organizing is the process of building such organizations. It involves:

  • bringing workers into the organization through recruitment,

  • constantly developing and maintaining democratic organizational structures,

  • collectively implementing activities and programmes,

  • providing a voice through representing members in engagements with public authorities, industry and other relevant actors,

  • building leadership and empowering members.


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