Organizations of waste pickers from around the world have been fighting for decades for the recognition of their work, their occupation, and their rights. This Saturday, October 29th, after more than ten years of international networking, 36 waste pickers’ organizations in 34 countries are formally launching the first global waste picker trade union: the International Alliance of Waste Pickers. With an estimated 20 million people in the world working as waste pickers, the establishment of the Alliance and ratification of its Constitution represents a milestone moment in a bottom-up process to organize the sector.
“With serious resolve to grow a culture of tolerance, collective effort, and peace, we commit to value our work, to obtain a dignified life and good living for our workers, and to care for and heal our common home, and we consolidate our organization in this international waste pickers’ alliance”, states the Preamble of the organization’s Constitution. The Constitution will be launched through a Virtual Congress where waste picker leaders and activists from 5 continents will highlight the history of the movement, outline their demands as a sector and share waste pickers’ agenda for action.
What is in the waste pickers’ agenda?
The Alliance’s agenda for action is centered around the right to work and the recognition of waste pickers in the environment and climate change agenda. Priorities include:
1. Defend waste pickers’ right to work and their rights as workers: The privatization of waste management systems and closure of open dumps pose significant threats to waste pickers’ livelihoods as they are displaced from their work sites or prevented from realizing their right to work. The Alliance will advocate for the recognition of waste pickers (as workers) who play an important role in waste management systems and who deserve a fair wage that compensates them for their environmental contribution. It will fight for public policies that improve the working and living conditions of the recyclers of the world.
2. Claim waste pickers rights on the International Labour Organization’s agenda: In adopting a democratic Constitution, the Alliance aims to gain recognition and accreditation as a representative international organization of waste pickers in negotiating structures such as the International Labour Conference of the ILO. This would enable workers to advocate for priority issues such as occupational identity, access to safe, healthy and secure working conditions, social welfare, social security, and gender-sensitive personal protective equipment for all waste pickers with the hope this will lead to improved living and working conditions for workers in their sector.
3. End Plastic Pollution: Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean, endangering aquatic life, threatening human health and resultings in myriad hidden costs for the economy. Such a global threat requires a global response – and waste pickers must participate in the process to establish the response. The United Nations Environment Assembly – via an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee – is developing an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. Waste pickers successfully advocated to be recognized in the United Nations Environmental Assembly UNEA Resolution 5/14 entitled ‘End plastic pollution – towards an international legally binding instrument’ a landmark moment. The Alliance will continue to ensure waste pickers are included in the Plastics Treaty negotiations, and for the Treaty to recognize the work of waste pickers.
4. Advocate that Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) initiatives acknowledge waste pickers’ historical and ongoing contribution to waste management and recycling: The Alliance believes that EPR should recognize that waste recovery generates a large number of livelihoods, and contributes to the incomes of millions of individuals. Also, governments across the world should recognize waste pickers’ contributions to resource recovery, conservation and transforming recyclables; and stop the systemic repression of their work and lives, ultimately jeopardizing recycling rates and the mitigation of climate change and marine plastic pollution. For the past three years, the Alliance has collectively developed a common position to push for mandatory government-led and environmentally robust EPR.
5. Recognize waste pickers as environmental workers who are contributing to climate change mitigation: Through their activities in collecting, sorting, recovering, and recycling waste, waste pickers help mitigate climate change and they call for this contribution to be recognized at global, national and local levels. For example, in 2020, waste pickers from Colombia’s Association of Waste Pickers of Bogotá (ARB) prevented the emissions of over 407 thousand tons of CO2 equivalent (eCO2), while India’s SWaCH Cooperative mitigated the emissions of more than 211 tons of CO2. Taken together, the avoided emissions are equivalent to removing a total of 133 thousand passenger cars from the road each year. The Alliance will continue to document workers’ contributions to climate change mitigation and advocate these contributions be recognized through integration and inclusion in municipal waste management strategies, access to related climate funds and relevant national policies. As in previous UN Climate Change Conferences, the International Alliance of Waste Pickers will participate in COP27 in Egypt.
Who will be affiliated?
Countries with prospective affiliates and observers include:
- Africa: Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa, Benin, Niger, Guinée, and Togo.
- Asia: India, Bangladesh, Nepal. Indonesia as an observer.
- Europe: France. Italy as an observer.
- Latin America: Brasil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Panama, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, El Salvador.
- North America: USA and Canada.
Historic moments for the waste pickers’ movement
The first international networking of waste pickers began in 2005, when RedLacre, the Latin American Network of Recyclers brought together emergent organizations of waste pickers across Latin America. Three years later, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers (GlobalRec) celebrated its First International Conference, in Bogotá (Colombia), hosting organizations from America, Africa, and Asia. Since then, there have been many collaborations between organizations across regions, multiple exchanges and international workshops. In the last three years, through a constitutive process, this international networked movement has developed a joint vision, in the shape of a constitution, that allows them to achieve a global united movement of waste pickers.