Surviving on a heap of rubbish

2007-11-15 00:00

SARANEL Benjamin refuses to call the people who eke out a living on landfills “waste pickers” or “reclaimers”, the preferred terms of government officials. “I refuse to sanitise this activity,” she says. “It's dehumanising and it shouldn't be happening, and certainly not in the way that it is currently.”

The author of a recent report on scavenging and waste recycling on five sites in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal - including the New England Road landfill in Pietermaritzburg – Benjamin estimates that at least one in four people scavenging on a South African landfill is a child between five and 18, with most being under 15.

The report notes that during a scoping exercise on the New England Road landfill, over 200 scavengers were seen picking waste, among whom were about 50 children, aged six to 18. On other visits, researchers saw children scavenging amid burning waste and bulldozers.

Commissioned by the government's South African Child Labour Programme of Action and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the study is the first of its kind in South Africa where there is little information on waste pickers' numbers.

One of the main aims of the research is to improve the legislative and policy framework.

Benjamin says scavengers, particularly the children, who by law shouldn't be working at all, are “falling through the cracks” in the country's legal and policy framework, with no one, including civil society, recycling companies, trade unions and local government, taking responsibility for their safety and wellbeing.

“They're a blind spot,” she says. This is despite the fact that waste pickers are known to help extend the lifespan of a landfill by reducing waste by up to 40%.

Benjamin says the Minimum Requirements for Disposal of Waste by Landfill deals most comprehensively with scavenging, but gives discretion to the landfill site manager to allow the practice and does not make it compulsory to regulate and control scavenging.

A closer look at the minimum requirements confirms a grey area: an appendix states that while the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry would ideally like to ban waste reclamation at landfills, it recognises it as an “important resource base for a sector of the population”. Thus the appendix states that “until informal salvaging can be eliminated, it should be discouraged, formalised and controlled, to minimise safety and health risks.”

Although waste reclamation at landfills is considered informal, and therefore unprotected, Benjamin's research shows that those who scavenge, including children, regard it as work and spend long hours doing it, often at the expense of school. Although there is some personal use, most of the recyclable waste - metal being the most highly prized - is taken for sale to waste companies.

But the “job” comes with a price. Benjamin says many of the children had visible health problems such as stunted growth, runny noses, chest problems and skin infections and inflammation. In some cases, they were suffering emotional distress. “Some of them had witnessed deaths of others as a result of accidents with the site bulldozers,” she said. Twenty-eight of the 75 children interviewed said they ate food picked off the site.

Benjamin says without formal intervention from a range of government departments, including education, children who start scavenging are unlikely to stop. “It's easy for children to get into the business. Some of the adults I spoke to had been doing it for 35 years.”

Children are suited to the competitive work, being quick and nimble. “If you ask them, they'll tell you they want to be police officers and teachers. When I asked them how they are going to get there, their faces filled with despair.”

One of the report's recommendations is to consolidate the efforts of a range of government departments - including environmental affairs and tourism (DEAT), trade and industry, labour, health and education - as well as recycling companies and civil society. “To leave this activity unregulated while waste companies and landfills are still benefiting is unacceptable,” she says.

According to Benjamin, some waste companies pay such low rates for waste it borders on exploitation.

While Benjamin admits that an end to scavenging would be ideal, its eradication in the context of increasing poverty is unlikely.

The next best thing is to manage it properly and ensure that scavengers are protected.

But on the issue of children, there's no room for negotiation. “The ILO says that scavenging is one of the worst forms of child labour. It just can't be allowed to happen. Children must be helped to get back into schools,” says Benjamin.

During the course of a country-wide scoping exercise, Benjamin says she saw a lot to disturb. But there were also success stories.

At controlled landfills in Palm Springs and Mogale City, she says, authorised scavengers earn between R4 000 to R6 000 a month. They are issued with health and safety gear and have ablution facilities on site.

“At Mogale City, there's an integrated approach involving several government departments like housing and health. Numbers of scavengers are regulated by a committee and each household gets free medical attention.”

For Benjamin, the worst possible intervention would be the outright closure of landfill sites to scavengers, without income-generation alternatives.

Benjamin says waste pickers should be drawn into waste sorting, but before it gets to the landfill where conditions are hazardous.

She is optimistic that a recent transfer of responsibility for landfills from Water Affairs to DEAT will see progress. “Now we have the ear of government, it's the right time for NGOs to take up the issue.”

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