By Laila Iskandar & Carina Kamel
While much of the media attention in recent weeks has focused on Egypt’s crackdown on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations, another type of NGO has quietly celebrated a long and hard fought victory.
After three years of discussions, debates, legal advice, and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, the Spirit of Youth NGO representing Cairo’s recycling communities has finally been given the green light to formally organize the capital’s garbage collectors and recyclers in a syndicate.
At a street party the Spirit of Youth NGO and three hundred garbage collectors – or “Zabballeen” as they are known in Arabic – from the capital’s six recycling neighborhoods celebrated with their newly formed syndicate. The event was covered by two TV channels and attended by government officials and a member of parliament.
The creation of this workers syndicate and the formal acknowledgment that comes with it is long overdue for Cairo’s garbage collectors. Like their fellow waste workers around the world, Cairo’s Zabballeen are the invisible entrepreneurs on the frontlines of city cleanliness, recycling value chains and environmental protection. They fight on a daily basis for their legitimate right to equal entrepreneurship, the same rights enjoyed by the formal corporate sector which invests in waste management.
The Zabballeen are entrepreneurs by nature. Back in the late 1940s, in the wake of rural to urban migration, they instituted the first organized garbage collection service for Cairo, a city that today is home to nearly 20 million inhabitants who generate 14,000 tons of household waste per day.
Cairo’s 120,000 collectors draw on their enormous capacity for hard work, setting off at the crack of dawn, coming all the way to our doorstep and taking away – for free! – what we consider ‘trash’. Through sorting and recycling, they turn our waste into valuable materials that set off a value chain which reverberates across Egypt and beyond. And remarkably, at great human cost, they recycle 80% of what they collect, the highest possible global recycling rate. Despite this, their industry never gets included in national accounts, GDP figures, employment statistics or capital investment accounts. That’s because they form part of Egypt’s vast ‘informal’ economy.
As early as the mid-nineties, CID Consulting began surveying the sector to measure its magnitude, markets, investment portfolios and employment potential. In 2003 we piloted a scheme to ‘formalize’ recycling and documented the complexity of the process and corruption of local authorities. In 2009 we teamed up with the Spirit of Youth NGO and the Gates Foundation to tackle obstacles like licensing collectors into companies, formalizing recycling workshops, and organizing workers into a syndicate.
We held meetings with the General Authority for Investment (GAFI) which oversees small and medium enterprises or SMEs in Egypt and began the eleven-step process to establish recycling companies. For all the government’s shortcomings, it has to be said that GAFI proved invaluable, dedicating a day for the mountains of paperwork required and acting as a go-between for the recyclers and the Kafkaesque maze of government agencies involved: the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Finance as well as the Governorates of Cairo and nearby Qalyoubiya.
On the street level, we held weekly meetings in each of Cairo’s six collectors’ neighborhoods, visited individual recycling workshops and talked the workers through the bureaucracy. We formed alliances with local lawyers who offered their services pro bono and reached out to international legal experts who had fought similar battles in other countries.
Years of hard work have culminated in the establishment of the ‘syndicate for workers in the cleansing and beautification sector,’ with the Governor of Cairo directing local authorities to contract our newly-syndicated workers to collect the city’s rubbish and to penalise those throw out waste instead of giving it to the collectors.
Cairo’s Zabballeen continue to live in squalor on the edge of a metropolis. They still have substandard water, sanitation, roads, clinics, schools and services. Their neighborhoods are known as ‘garbage villages’. But now, after six decades serving the capital, hundreds of them have taken the first step to being a legitimate part of the economy.
There is still a lot to do, but we are registering more companies every day and expanding membership to 3000 companies in the capital and beyond. Rest assured Cairo, your local garbage collector is here to stay!
Not only is the service the Zabballeen provide essential because it protects from diseases like cholera, but it also plugs the gap in Cairo’s virtually non-existent municipal services.
But in today’s reality, the garbage collectors have been left to live in slums bereft of infrastructure, basic services or the minimum vestiges of human decency. They’ve been subjected to five evictions and forcible relocations over the past forty years. Even when the government ‘licensed’ them to operate, they were paid a fraction of market rates, then, quickly replaced by private companies and later, in 2003, by foreign multinationals.
The global financial architecture colluded to supplant them, along with millions of recyclers in the developing world, by multinationals. It was called privatization, modernization, formalization.
More recently, in light of the swine flu scare in 2009, their pigs – a vital part of the efficient recycling process because they consume food waste – were slaughtered right in front of their homes.
But being natural-born entrepreneurs they dug deep into their internal resources and fought to keep their foothold on their collection routes. They established markets and processes for every item in the city’s waste: paper, cardboard, metals, plastic, glass, cloth, and the mounting volume of food. They generated seven jobs for every ton of waste they collected, providing employment for the illiterate, unskilled and dispossessed.
Laila R. Iskander is one of the founders and chairperson of CID Consulting (www.cid.com.eg) and chairperson of the garbage collector’s NGO Spirit of Youth Association
Carina Kamel is a senior correspondent for Arabic news channel Al Arabiya TV and has known Cairo’s garbage collectors since her childhood.