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City Report: Interview with a local Waste Picker

A Conversation With: Priyanto of Solo, Central Java, Indonesia. Translator: Simon from KASBI

Personal Story

Having only finished secondary school, Priyanto does not have the graduation letters needed to get a formal job. Therefore, in 2003 he began work as a waste picker. And in 2009 he initiated an organization of waste pickers with his community, living along the Bangawan Solo River. They called their informal recycling group Semut Ireng (Black Ant). The name, which was suggested by Priyanto’s friends and neighbours who make up the group, comes from the philosophy of the black ant – hardworking and always working cooperatively. Priyanto has been the president of the Black Ants since its inception.

Official Waste Management System

In Solo, waste management is handled by the Departemen Kebersihan and Pertamanan (Department of Cleanliness and Maintenance Of City Landscapes). Before 2000, collection was carried out by government employees. Since then, collection has been outsourced to a private company. The city collects waste from houses, transports it to a transfer station where waste pickers are allowed to segregate, and then deposits it in a landfill. Located on the periphery of Solo, the open dumpsite is called Putri Cempo. It is around 13 hectares and has been in existence for 30 years. Although the city has no formal program for recycling or composting, there is one private recycling company. Currently there are no plans for an incinerator.

Informal Recycling System

There are around 1,000 waste pickers in Solo, but Semut Ireng is the only organized group. Some waste pickers collect from houses and business establishments, others go to the landfill to pick waste, and the rest collect recyclables from the streets. The waste pickers collect plastic, paper, metal, bottles, etc and organic waste, which is already segregated so there’s almost no need to do any final segregation. Some of them use collected plastic cups for growing plants (Priyanto sells tamarind plants using plastic cups as bags).Collected recyclables are sold to junkshops and organic waste is made into compost, which is sold and used for farming. Sometimes farmers go to the landfill to collect organic waste to make compost, but oftentimes farmers just buy composts from waste pickers. Priyanto uses a motorcycle that he got second-hand on credit to collect. Others in Semut Ireng use bicycles that are owned by the group.

Waste Picker Organization

Semut Ireng was organized in 2009. They regularly organize meetings and have started a cooperative. They now also try to sell materials collectively to get a better price. They have 200 individual members.KASBI (Konfederasi Kongres Aliansi Serikat Buruh Indonesia/Confederation of congress of Indonesian Unions Alliance) tried to get Semut Ireng registered as a union (the three kinds of unions in Indonesia are: factory union, non-factory union and special union) but the registration was denied because they could not establish that employer-employee relationships existed. KASBI also tried to register them as a mass organization, but found it to be very difficult also. Even so, Semut Ireng members see themselves as a union.Waste pickers in Indonesia are considered a social problem, which is why they cannot get contracts with municipalities or companies. They live in impoverished areas and they are all illegal settlers, although almost all of them are originally from Solo. They have slowly been pushed to the city’s periphery because of developments. In Indonesia, there is no policy for relocation, only eviction. Now, the government wants to evict Priyanto’s community from the riverbank, but they refuse to move because they do not know where to go.Waste pickers who belong to the Semut Ireng have legal identity; they have national ID cards, but they don’t have social benefits or access to health benefits.One reason why KASBI is helping them is because they see that Semut Ireng represents the big picture of informal waste sector in Indonesia. Currently, 70 per cent of Indonesia workforce is in the informal sector.

Current Central Issues

The main goal of Semut Ireng is to get recognition from the government. In the future, they would also like to be formally involved in the waste management system, but the main goal is formal recognition. If they get formal recognition from the government, then they can get social security and health benefits.Right now though, their highest priority is to stop the eviction order from the government.They face a lot of prejudice. In Solo and in Jakarta, there are signs in many places that say waste pickers are not allowed; they are discriminated against by government and the community who see waste pickers as dirty. Waste pickers are easily blamed for thefts and security issues because they are strangers.They also face harassment from the local “police” (they can’t translate the proper term but it seems these are men who are not real policemen and have limited power to enforce laws; they are often in charge of minor security matters). Priyanto and others have experienced verbal abuse from the “police” and there has even been an instance when the “police” beat up and detained one of them for the charge of being a social problem.I asked what kind of future Priyanto sees for the waste pickers in Solo if they are seen as a social problem? He said, “It’s very hard for them to see the future because of their current problems.”