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URUGUAY: Improving Conditions for Waste Pickers

Pablo Alfano

MONTEVIDEO, Mar 26 2010 (IPS) - “The time will come when 80 percent of the raw material used by industry in Uruguay will be recycled waste products,” Marcelo Conde, a 40-year-old garbage sorter who has been digging through trash for recyclables “for as long as I can remember,” says with some pride.

Conde, vice president of the Union of Urban Solid Waste Sorters (UCRUS), works at the Felipe Cardozo Cooperative (COFECA), the biggest of the waste picker cooperatives that operate in the Felipe Cardozo recycling plant, the largest of its kind in the capital of this small South American country between Argentina and Brazil.

At the plant, the members of some 60 cooperatives sort through the rubbish dumped by around 30 trucks, of the 540 that dispose of 2,000 tons of urban waste a day in dumps around the capital, Montevideo.

An estimated 800 tons of household waste are processed daily by about 5,000 families in the capital, according to the latest official count in 2008.

But authorities say the real number is up to twice that, if non-registered waste pickers are included, while a similar number of informal garbage collectors work in the rest of the country, classifying and selling recyclables. (Montevideo is home to roughly half of the population of 3.3 million.)

Efforts to overcome the stigma of working as informal garbage sorters are a recent phenomenon in Uruguay, as in other countries around the world.

During the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, “hurgadores”, as they were called, had to sneak into the municipal garbage dumps to dig for recyclable materials, and many ended up spending a night behind bars as a result.

But things are changing. The ministries of social development (MIDES) and education and culture drafted a manual on the rights of garbage sorters, with the aim of protecting their ability to work and earn a living, while carrying out such an important task as recycling.

In addition, many have grouped together in the UCRUS union and, with the support of MIDES, have set up cooperatives that are improving working conditions.

Shortly after the country’s first left-wing government took office in March 2005, socialist President Tabaré Vázquez created MIDES, whose main focus was the National Plan to Address the Social Emergency (PANES), an anti-poverty initiative.

MIDES supposed that a large portion of waste pickers would sign up for PANES, which included an income transfer programme for extremely poor households, a temporary workfare scheme with a training component, microcredit, a food purchase card and other benefits.

But it turned out that a significant number of families who sorted garbage for a living actually earned enough to put them above the official poverty line, which made them ineligible for PANES.

Conde told IPS that a member of the cooperative where he works earns between 1,600 and 1,700 pesos a week, which works out to around 400 dollars a month.

He said that not only does the work pay more than some other jobs, but sorters like being self-employed and not having a boss or a set schedule.

Many of them also sell scavenged home appliances and clothes, shoes and furniture, often in good condition, at neighbourhood street markets throughout Montevideo

To foment labour, social and cultural inclusion of people who make a living by collecting and classifying garbage, government officials designed the programme Uruguay Clasifica (Uruguay Sorts).

“The first thing we found is that the severe economic crisis of 2002 (one of the worst in the country’s history) did not actually lead to an increase in the number of sorters,” Nicolás Minetti, the head of Uruguay Clasifica, told IPS.

“They just became more visible because of the new distribution of trash dumpsters” in several cities, which replaced the traditional system of setting trash bags out on the sidewalk when the garbage truck was set to come by, he added.

“Before, sorters knew the schedules of the garbage trucks, and just had to go through the bags of rubbish for recyclable materials shortly before the truck came by to pick up the trash. But now, they have to sort through the dumpsters all day long, at any time. That has made them more visible,” he said.

The programme has also had a special focus on children, because since the dumpsters were set on each block, more youngsters can be seen riding the horse-drawn carts used by most trash pickers. Although garbage sorting was already a family occupation, as in the case of Conde, who began to work with his stepfather when he was just a little boy, it is easier for small children than adults to “dumpster dive.”

The children begin working at the age of eight on average, and half of the women working in the trade are already mothers by the age of 15, Minetti said.

In this country, which has the highest literacy rate in Latin America – 97 percent – most waste pickers have never finished school: 25 percent have three years or less of formal schooling, while 80 percent have six years or less.

One of Uruguay Clasifica’s aims is to generate conditions to keep children and adolescents in school, or help dropouts return to the educational system, by providing a small cash stipend for families whose children attend school.

Some waste recyclers have also signed up for programmes run by the government of Montevideo or the ministry of labour and social security. The classes for adults, in gardening and green spaces, construction, and mechanics training, begin in April, Minetti said.

Ecological work

Uruguay Clasifica is also focusing on training and on improving working conditions, as well as carrying out an awareness-raising campaign. It has begun handing out uniforms to garbage sorters, and distributing pamphlets that explain the work that they do and how to separate household trash.

A pilot project was carried out in Ciudad de la Costa (City of the Coast), made up of a series of small beach resorts stretching east of the capital along the coast of the Río de la Plata (River Plate), where waste pickers have replaced their horses with bicycles to pull their carts.

These men and women, who now wear uniforms, hand out stickers and informational pamphlets to urge people to separate their trash for recycling.

The results have been encouraging. “At the same house where they used to glare at me and call the police when I was looking at their garbage, now when I go by in my uniform the owners of the house say ‘here, come through this way, the bottles and cans are stored out back’,” said one of the sorters taking part in the project, Minetti recalled.

In 2008, MIDES helped set up 10 cooperatives in Montevideo and the central department (province) of Florida, as part of another pilot plan.

The idea, a long-time goal of the garbage sorters’ union, was to get the workers to pay into social security, as members of microenterprises and cooperatives, and leave behind their status as informal sector workers, said Conde and Minetti.

In 2009, thanks to agreements signed with the governments of the 19 departments into which Uruguay is divided, the plan was extended, and today there are 40 cooperatives or groups that are in the process of registering as such.

In COFECA, the cooperative where Conde works, the members were given rain gear last year, and when he spoke to IPS, they were about to receive uniforms.

“Now we have another pending goal: a warehouse, so the materials like newspapers, paper and cardboard are under a roof and won’t get wet when it rains,” the trade unionist explained.

“Although it might not seem like it, garbage is a huge, multibillion dollar business, and it’s about time that the weakest link in the chain, the sorters, have a decent life and are respected for our silent contribution to the environment,” Conde said.

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