The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
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Chennai India

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City Report: Interview with a local Waste Picker

A conversation with: Rosie and Rani, both waste pickers from the Tribal Welfare Society, and R. Leelavathy, a unionist with the Unorganised Workers Federation;

Personal Story

Rosie and Rani belong to an indigenous group known as the Narikurava, part of the Schedule Tribes that comprise about 7.5 per cent of the Indian population (2001 Census). These are historically disadvantaged social groups recognized by India's Constitution, together with Scheduled Castes. These groups are still heavily discriminated against, despite affirmative action by the government. For instance, Rosie explains, “People don't let us enter in the restaurants, at most we can ask to pack the food we buy. The same thing happens in tea stalls where they will not serve us tea in glass cups, but only in plastic cups. They say we would pollute them.”Rosie and Rani are both part of a tribal communities organization, which fights to get recognition.

Official Waste Management System

The municipality is in charge of waste collection, which is increasingly outsourced to private companies. Solid waste employees often unofficially segregate and then sell recyclable materials to supplement their salaries. They do it during their working hours, and sometimes also go to the landfill after work to collect more valuable materials.

Informal Recycling Sector

Most of the city’s recycling is carried out by over 10,000 waste pickers (men and women, but also children), mostly from Scheduled Tribes and Castes, and Muslims (another minority often discriminated against in India). Rosie and Rani, for example, collect the recyclable materials at the community bins. They have to work late at night, before the private company or municipal trucks come at 5 a.m. to collect the waste and bring it to the landfill.There are also itinerant buyers, who buy recyclables directly from households. However, waste pickers are not involved in door-to-door collection. Once the waste is collected, they segregate it and sell it to junk dealers spread all over the city. (They are paid per kg: i.e. Rs.6 for PET bottles, Rs.10 for hard plastic). Interestingly, some waste pickers also walk around with a magnetic tool and then sell the collected metals. Most waste pickers collect the recyclable materials on foot, as they can't afford to buy a cycle (about Rs. 3,000 or US $54) or a tricycle (about Rs.10,000, or US $181).Although the working conditions are difficult, Rani and Rosie say, “We have no alternatives.” They go on to explain some positive aspects of the work, “We can work when we want, while a fixed schedule might make it difficult for us (women) to take care of our children.” In fact, waste pickers are generally independent workers. Only in a few rare cases would a waste picker (or a junk dealer) employ others to collect the recyclable waste.

Waste Picker Organization

The Unorganized Workers Federation has recently started to organize waste pickers. This is a 30 year old union, which has historically worked with construction and manual workers like domestic workers, street vendors, and taxi drivers. The union is now working to organize the waste pickers. First of all, they hope to obtain official recognition of waste pickers by providing them with identification cards so that they can more easily obtain access to the welfare schemes. For example, in theory waste pickers are eligible for welfare schemes, which should provide them pensions and financial help for marriages, children education, health, loans, etc. However, access to these schemes is difficult for the informal sector workers as they find it hard to obtain permission from the bureaucrats who should certify their profession. The union also intends to campaign for maternity benefits and early childhood education so that their children can be taken care of while the women are at work. In their opinion, if the municipality can support the informal recycling sector the livelihood of thousands will improve and waste will be managed in a more sustainable way.

Current Central Issues

One the main problems waste pickers face is harassment by police and, in the landfill site, by the private company. Moreover, if not explicitly persecuted (and asked to pay bribes), waste pickers face complete disrespect from other citizens. Safety is also an issue. Recently, Rani and Rosie say, a woman with her children died in an accident at the landfill site when they were buried under a load of waste discharged by a truck. Apart from safety, their health in general is affected by the poor working conditions. Another issue is mobility. They can't afford to buy an independent means of transport, like a bicycle, and they are not allowed to enter public buses with the recyclable materials they have collected. They need to walk everywhere, which means their area of work is restricted and transporting the recyclable materials to the junk dealer is sometimes very tiring.The municipality has not recognized their contribution to waste management, nor do they take note of the environmental benefits due to recycling. As they are not economically compensated, the waste pickers are in fact subsidizing the waste management system. However only the private waste companies get paid for the collection service. There is a general sense among the waste pickers that this is unfair. As Rosie and Rani put it, “The municipality does not even provide water and electricity in the slums where we live.”Reporting on current conditions, Rani says, “Private companies are not paying well the workers and fail to properly segregate and recycle the waste. They don't know as much as we do about waste.” Their dream would be that people segregate at source, so that they could then easily sell the recyclables and compost the organic material. In this way, he goes onto say, “Very little waste would have to go to the landfill, and it would not get full so quickly.”