Working as a Wastepicker

Unterwegs als Wastepicker

On The Dump
To complete my picture of the lives of the wastepickers, I found it indispensable to become a wastepicker myself. At least for a short period of time, I wanted to get an impression of the mental and physical strain of their work.
One day in early April I ask a Cambodian friend to write me a note in Khmer, which I showed to the literate wastepickers, expressing my wish to work with them. On the sheet of paper is written in Khmer something like: "I want to work as a wastepicker for one day. Please help me!" So, in the early morning, I make my way to the dump, equipped with long trousers, working boots, gloves, a hat and the traditional kroma wrapped around my head. In my pocket is the slip off paper and as I arrive on the dumpsite at 7 a.m., most wastepickers there have already been working for 2 hours. I showe my note around and find complete incomprehension, because most people cannot read. Occasionally, I reap a tired smile. I realise that the people think I am crazy. Fortunately, Veacha, the teacher on the dump helps me to take hold to my dream job by explaining my concern to some of the kiddies there. The kids are just on their way to work and they agree to take me and to show me all that has to be considered by a real wastepicker. One of the boys gives me his working tool, which is made of the bended handle of a painter’s roller. The metal end of the grip is sharpened to allow a better search through the waste and to better pick the valuables out. A plastic sack completes my equipment.

As we arrive at the unloading point, there is of course a big "Hello" and I reap a lot of attention "Barang" (longnose), "Hychai" (collecting garbage). I am assigned to the best place in the first row beside the unloading garbage trucks, while the people show me, which waste have a reselling value.
So I start to open the plastic bags and to search through their contents, always with the aim to add as many valuable items as possible to my plastic sack. Quite pleasant odours flow out to me from some bags, e.g. the wastes of barbershops or beauty salons. But those wastes are indeed exceptional and the content of most of the bags is much less pleasant. In reality I am often close to vomiting.
In the waste one can find everything that humans do not need any more and want to get rid of as quick as possible. Hereby I count rotting food left-overs to the more or less harmless and normal substances... But on the dump is also highly infectious medical waste (including used syringes), dead animals and a broad cocktail of further toxic and dangerous matter, with which the people come in contact unprotectedly. In particular many children are around barefoot, without headgear and gloves in these dangerous surroundings.

In 2002 two children got injured very badly after a grenade exploded in the waste. The conditions among which the wastepicker has to work and live are below human dignity.

Meanwhile the sun ascends and is soon vertical over our heads. The wind has turned and presses the smoke of the burning garbage dump onto the unloading place. It is very hot and steamy, poisonous smoke bites into the eyes and lungs and mingles with the stench of the garbage. Long ago I lost my fancy place beside the garbage truck, elbowed out by the other humans, whose daily survival is in direct relation to the amount of valuables collected. Also I do not attract anyone’s attention anymore. Like all other wastepickers I sink into lethargy, not thinking anymore about the hostile environment, not thinking anymore about richness and poverty, not thinking anymore about justice and injustice in the world. My head is dull, I tear open more garbage bags and try to fill my plastic sack, feeling happy about every aluminium can, because with aluminium I can make the most money, but mostly my colleges are faster than me and snap the best pieces away in front of my nose.
Then, as some kids notice my puny success, they start to collect for me and as they start from time to time to put a can or bottle into my sack, I am moved to tears.

Neverending is the flow of garbage trucks from the city. Again and again they unload their stinking freight. As if the world only consists of waste. Already, before the truck starts the unloading, some wastepickers are climbing at breakneck speed, on the truck to catch a bargain... (plastic bottle or can favourably). As soon as the unloading flap opens, the foremost search through the waste, climb on to the pile, always in the hope of the greatest pray. In fact the wastepicker will pay their collegues for the privilege to be in the first row.
Also at noontime, during the hottest part of the day, there is no break. Dancing in step with the garbage trucks the people climb on the stinking pile before the unloading flaps of the trucks are closed. After a short while the bulldozer starts to push the small pile on the big pile, unimpressed by the working people, unimpressed by the searching children, beside and before the caterpillar drives, regardless of any losses. The bulldozer mixes hither and thither the waste and uncovers more valuables. In particular the children take the chance and walk behind the bulldozer in hope of more valuables. Every year children, who cannot evade the big machine, get fatally injured. And yet this is only one more piece of life-hostility which is part of the daily routine.
I have to take a break, drink water and I sit down with the others in the garbage. Children pass me carrying sacks, which they can barely handle, sacks, which are heavier than themselves. Routine on the dump. I must not get used to this sight, must not persuade myself, that this belongs to normality, that there is nothing special in this surrounding. Never should what I have just seen be considered as normality.

A huge cockroach settles down in my t-shirt. With great respect I consider the people around me, who are still able to keep their human dignity in these extremely difficult circumstances, who try to support their children in a way that at least enables them to attend school. And I feel ashamed. Ashamed by the father of a family, who invites me to his shack and tells me in French, how hard it is for him, that he can only afford to send 4 of his 6 children to school, while the other 2 and he and his wife have to work on the dump, so that the family can survive; while at the same time he offers me in candid hospitality a can of beer, with ice, but only for me, because he has not enough for himself. I feel ashamed.

After 3 p.m. in the afternoon I give up. I can’t do it anymore, I don’t want anymore to do this, and I have seen enough in 7 hours of very hard work. I bring my collected valuables to the intermediary; some kids help me to sort them. With pride I watch the buyer weigh my valuables and eventually I am disappointed as I get only 500 Riel (approx. 13 ct.). Seven hours hard work, 500 Riel? During this time I had to drink water for 2000 Riel at the same time, while I haven’t eaten anything!
My chances of surviving as a wastepicker are extremely low. The 500 Riel I earned, I gave to the boy who lent me his tools. He takes the money with reluctance. I jump onto my bike shaken, and drive back to Phnom Penh, thinking of the children who gave me items from their valuables, in order to fill my empty plastic sack.