Did you know that wastepickers are itemised as group 916, under the category "unskilled casual workers", in the "International Standard Classification of Professions (ISCO88)"?
The general public does not know a lot about the activities of the wastepickers, or about their social and economical living conditions. The collection and selling of waste in many countries creates the living basis for a part of the poor population and forms its own economic branch.

Economic Situation

A surveillance of the daily income of wastepickers in Phnom Penh shows that 64% among them earn less than one dollar per day with their work. The 2nd largest group earn between one and two dollar per day. Although the children work 8 hours and more per day, they earn less than adults and have less than 1 $ per day income. (1)
The average monthly income of most wastepicker families (74%), is less than $50.00. Considering the fact that many family households have 5 members or more, this equals a monthly income of $9,20 per capita, which is below the national poverty line of Cambodia ($11,50 per month).
Most families (nearly 70%) have to rely on relatives to supplement their income, e.g. by working in factories, casual work etc.
As for the personal situations of the wastepickers, the daily working time varies. Three out of four wastepickers state that they work between 8 and 16 hours per day. Wastepickers now also work at night, trying to gain higher yields. The risks however are much higher at night than during daytime: Dangers include cuts, bites by straying animals, becoming a victim of robbery or violent crime. There is no seasonal change in working habits. Also there are no longer periods of rest (vacation!) during the year, meaning wastepickers work during the whole year, without a break.

Distances covered during working time

In the search for valuable items in the waste the wastepickers in town walk more than 10 km per day. More than 80% of the younger kids walk distances of more than 6 kilometres per day. A verification of these figures led to the conjecture, that most of the wastepickers walk much longer distances per day than they indicated here.
On the garbage dump the waste is searched directly, therefore these statements of measure cannot be done for the people who work there.

Working protection

If we remember the very unhealthy and hostile environmental conditions in which the wastepickers work, the following question seems to be more than justified:
“What are wastepickers doing to protect themselves from toxic fumes, dust, bad smell, injuries, diseases and vermin during their working hours?”
Quite frankly – almost nothing. The extreme poverty of the people is the reason for the complete lack of working protection. Regarding my own observations the number of people using gloves or respiratory protection masks is very small. Less than half of the wastepickers have proper footgear at their disposal. Many kids walk bare-foot in the garbage and therefore face a considerable risk of severe injury and diseases. The high risk of diseases put the wastepickers in even more difficult circumstances – a vicious circle of poverty, which the people cannot break through by themselves.
One of the main problems the wastepickers have to face according to their own statements, are threats by other members of the society. This behaviour towards the wastepicker is often a result of social and racist prejudgements of the larger population. Additionally children and young women are constantly exposed to the danger of being trafficked into forced labour or prostitution.

Market Value of Collected Valuables

During a study by a local NGO, more than 30 waste materials could be identified which have a reasonable market value. As important materials the following can be named: Glass, iron, copper, brass, aluminium, bones, plastic and paper. These materials are found in the form of tins, cans, bottles, packing, cable, scrap material, etc. Depots, which buy the collected materials from the wastepickers can be found everywhere in the urban area. These depots function as middlemen in the market of recyclable materials. Here the valuable items are bought up, stored and receive a primary preparation before they are transported to Vietnam or Thailand. The primary preparation steps are - depending on the material - cleaning, compacting, crushing or dismantling. Additionally the depots give out small credits to the wastepickers (which they use for buying up valuable waste directly from households) and also put pushcarts at their disposal. However, by doing this they also bind the wastepickers. Only a small quantity of valuable items, like metals for traditional cooking pots or tools etc. are recycled and reused in Cambodia. Food leftovers and wood, which are found in the garbage, are mostly directly used by the wastepickers themselves.


In expert circles the activities of the wastepickers are classified in the category “informal waste sector” and are therefore seen as a sub area of waste management. Often the engagement of waste management experts ended with the definition of the activities of the wastepicker and a serious scientific involvement remained to be done, as well as an appreciation of the people working in the informal sector.
Current projects, which follow the principles of sustainability, try to integrate wastepickers into waste management systems in order to have a lasting effect on the improvement of their living conditions.

(1) The figures refer to data available in 2001 and earlier, unless indicated differently (please check also the bibliography). Some ratios have been improved through the intensive activities of relief organisations during the past few years. Current figures should be requested there in case of interest.