Michael Hanna Shukri is an Egyptian who is working hard on a new waste picker’s union. We spoke to him about his work and organization.
What is your background?
I am a young Zabaleen, which is the name of Cairo’s informal garbage collectors who started working in Cairo 80 years ago. I am 23 and I have been working for ten years. I am a member of the waste picker union and sit on the Spirit of the Youth’s board of directors. Spirit of the Youth is an NGO working with young Zabaleen which has spearheaded a campaign to start a union and helped it with money.
Spirit of the Youth also does training. Residents do not separate waste and the Zabaleen segregate in their homes. The Spirit of the Youth now has a project teaching Zabaleen and residents how to segregate. They also provide courses on waste sector safety and capacity building.
Tell me about your work
I collect waste with my brothers on my family’s truck. Some of them collect from houses and others go to commercial areas. We collect from around 600 flats and 40 commercial shops. We work every day, starting early in the morning. Then, around 8 am, I go to work either at Spirit of the Youth or in the union.
How is waste collected?
In 2004, the government gave contracts to multinational corporations (MNCs). Now there are two companies: the Spanish FCC and the Egyptian-Italian, AmaArab. They place containers in streets where residents deposit their waste. The government charges residents for collection and pays the MNCs.
The MNCs in turn pay the Wahaya, who work as subcontractors for them. The Wahaya came from the desert 60 years ago. They met an old man working as a waste picker and later started to control the waste system. But it is the informal Zabaleen who go door to door and collect the waste for the Wahaya. The municipal government thinks that the Zabaleen are paid, but actually they make their money from selling plastic, cartons, metal, textiles and other non-organic recyclable materials. They also feed organic waste to pigs.
The companies and the Wahaya control the formal waste system.
How do the Zabaleen work?
The 120 000 informal Zabaleen, who are mostly men, divide Cairo into six areas. There are individuals who collect waste and those who run small workshops, the middlemen, who buy and sell waste. In addition, 35 000 informal waste workers come from outside the city. There are about 1 500 waste workshops in Cairo, each with three to four workers. However the government does not notice the Zabaleen’s work.
In 2015 the MNC’s contracts will come to an end. The Zabaleen want to force the government to create new contracts with them as before privatization they provided a good collection service. Since government contracted foreign companies the quality of service has declined and the Zabaleen have fewer opportunities to earn money.
Tell me about the new union
After the Egyptian revolution the Human Resources Ministry changed the laws and the Zabaleen legally formed a union of 3 000 members in 2012.
The union head, Ezzat Naem, is a 40 year old Zabaleen who also sits on the executive of Spirit of the Youth.
I am overall in charge of recruiting waste pickers in the six areas of Cairo. Each area has three members responsible for recruitment. They tell Zabaleen about the union, inform them of their rights, and explain what they can expect from the union.
The union issues ID cards and provides health insurance and a pension. Each member pays a US $2 union subscription a month. Most members collect waste, but a few come from the workshops. The union wants to recruit more members before it elects leadership in May next year.