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Cairo Egypt

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City Report: Interview with a local Waste Picker

A Conversation With: Michael Hanna Shukri, a waste picker from Cairo, Egypt.

Personal Story

Michael is a member of the waste picker union and sits on Spirit of the Youth’s board of directors. Twenty-three years old, Michael has been working as a waste picker (the Arabic word for waste picker is Amelnzafa or Amelagam) for 10 years.Michael collects waste with his brothers on a truck that his family owns. Some of them collect from houses and others go to commercial areas. They collect from around 600 flats and 40 commercial shops. They work every day, starting early in the morning. Then, around 8 a.m., he goes to work either at Spirit of the Youth or in the union.

Formal Solid Waste Management System

In 2004, the government gave a contract to several multinational corporations (MNCs). At first there were four MNCs, but soon one company (Ensar) left, leaving FCC and AmaArab to take over its share of the work. There was also a partnership of foreign companies called Europe 2000. They also recently left after their contract was cancelled around February 2012. Currently, there are two remaining companies: FCC (Spanish) and AmaArab (Egyptian and Italian).Historically the Zabaleen (Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for nearly 80 years) have collected waste door to door and the MNCs placed receptacles in the streets and expected residents to deposit their waste. The government charges the residents for collection and pays the money to the MNCs. The Zabaleen are still doing door-to-door collection but are not getting paid by the MNCs. Rather, the companies pay the Wahaya, who work as subcontractors.The Wahaya came to Cairo about 60 years ago and now control the waste system. Though the MNCs pay the Wahaya to collect the waste, they in turn get the Zabaleen to do it. Although the municipal government are under the impression that the Zabeleen are being paid for collection, they make their money by selling plastic, cartons, metal, textiles and all other non-organic recyclable materials. They feed organic waste to the pigs.During the swine flu epidemic the government attempted to kill all the Zabaleen’s pigs. Although families tried to hide their pigs, the government successfully killed most. After the revolution, people bought new pigs so the system is working again, and the number of pigs is increasing daily.Biogas energy is used to heat water in homes.

Informal Waste Management System

Home to approximately 120,000 Zabaleen, who are mostly men, Cairo is divided into six areas. This includes individuals who collect waste and those who now run small workshops, represent middleman who buy and sell waste. In addition, 35,000 informal waste workers come from outside the city. There are a total of 1,500 waste sector workshops in Cairo, each with three to four workers.

Waste Picker Organization

After the revolution the government’s Human Resource Ministry changed the rules/laws and it became possible for the Zabaleen to legally form a union. Therefore, the union, which has three thousand members, was formalized in 2012.Residents do not segregate waste; the Zabaleen do segregation in their homes. The Spirit of the Youth has a project teaching both Zabaleen and residents how to segregate. They also provide courses on waste sector safety precautions and capacity building.The head of the union, Ezzat Naem, is a 45 year old waste picker who is also the executive officer of Spirit of the Youth, a union initiative. Laila Iskander is the director of Spirit of the Youth’s board of directors of Spirit of the Youth.Michael is in charge of recruiting members in all six areas of Cairo. There are three members in each area responsible for recruiting members. They tell waste pickers about the union and inform them of their rights and the support they can receive through membership. The union issues ID cards and provides health insurance and a pension. Each member must pay dues of about US $2/month. There are currently 3000 union members. Most of them are people who collect waste, but there are a few members from the workshops. The union is still waiting to get more members before they elect leadership. They expect to have elections in May.Spirit of the Youth, an NGO, provided money to help start the union. Currently the union is not yet receiving money from donors. Michael is a part of the board of directors in the Union where he works as a volunteer, but he earns about $150 on the month from the Spirit of Youth Association as he is an officer there.

Current Central Issues

Excluded from the formal waste management system, the government has contracted foreign companies and does not pay attention to the work of the Zabaleen. The foreign SWM companies’ contracts will end in 2017. The Zabaleen intend to force the government to create new contracts with the city’s informal waste workers at that time. Michael reports that before privatization the waste pickers provided good collection service; since the government contracted the foreign companies the quality of the service has diminished and the waste pickers have had few opportunities to earn money.Adriana Ruiz Respeto, who led the court case in Colombia, came to Cairo and advised the Zabaleen on how to move their case forward.