Wastepickers say they are neglected and go hungry because of lockdown

Wastepickers from Qalabotjha Enterprise, a cooperative of wastepickers in Paarl that won a battle for recognition by their municipality. Photo by Sharon McKinnon

Wastepickers are one group of informal economy workers who have been hit hardest by the lockdown and lack of planning by government to provide relief for the poor in South Africa.

The seizure of the national economy by the coronavirus pandemic has forbidden the reclaiming of plastics, paper and metals from waste by individual wastepickers. Hunger is the lockdown reality for these most marginalised of workers. Private companies, however, have been brought in by municipalities during the lockdown to run separation of waste programs.

A report by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, wastepickers are estimated to save municipalities up to R748.8 million by diverting between 16 and 24 tonnes of recyclables away from landfills per year, all at little to no cost. The report distinguishes between formal and informal recycling. Most wastepicking belongs in the informal sector which is described as individuals picking through bin bags at kerbsides recovering valuable recyclables. There are also wastepickers that have formal agreements with municipalities to work at a landfill site and are provided with the space to work and personal protective equipment.

Lack of recognition and challenges before COVID 19

According to Maditlhare Koena, a wastepicker from Paarl in the Western Cape, they sell recyclables at a low price compared to the work they put in to collecting them. “We do most of the work but we sell at a low price to middle-men and big companies who rip us off, but we know that we contribute to the cleanliness of the environment and we save municipalities money and therefore we contribute to the economy of the country,” she said.

Koena who is the provincial coordinator for the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA) said that after they formed an association they approached local government to request space to sort their recyclables. After numerous meetings and negotiations, they convinced the municipality to come on board and offer them a landfill site. The site is fully equipped with machines and the wastepickers are provided with safety gear.

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Another group of wastepickers in Khayelitsha have to rattle through the streets on waste collection days to ransack the bins, searching for recyclables. “It is not an easy job; we have to wake up early especially on bin collection day, it is the best day for us,” said 73-year-old Nomakhosazana Gwada from Site B in Khayelitsha. Summer is the best season for picking through the rubbish people are throwing away, according to Nompumelelo Njana. However, Njana said that because they do not have personal protective equipment like glasses, gloves and masks, they are at risk of getting injuries from breaking glass bottles. “We are at risk of going blind from breaking the glass; there are some people who got injuries that way,” said the 59-year-old. Njana said that they have approached the City and the provincial government to get a piece of land where they can work from but have not been successful.

Nomakhosazana Gwada and Nompumelelo Njana started to do the work in 2009 and 2008 respectively. Photo by Lilita Gcwabe

According to Melanie Samson, a senior lecturer in Human Geography at the University of the Witwatersrand, the problems and the challenges that wastepickers face in their work situation has to do with the fact that they are not recognised as workers. “Because they have not been recognised as part of the municipal waste management systems, the work they do is not valued and they face regular harassment from the police and are seen as intruders in wealthier suburbs,” she said.

Lockdown and lack of access to food

Nompumelelo Njana, a wastepicker from Khayelitsha, said that the lockdown caught them by surprise and they could not immediately go sell what they had already collected. “The buyback centres were going to be closed … I didn’t have money to transport what I had already collected when the president announced lockdown. Now, we don’t have food at home or even money to buy personal hygiene stuff like soap. The main problem is that we are hungry,” she said.

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Koena said that the fact that there are no separation of waste facilities in the community puts the wastepickers at risk of contracting the coronavirus. “People are not taught to separate their waste so because people are encouraged to sneeze or cough into a tissue, then put that into their rubbish bin, we are at risk of getting the virus from touching the tissues if they are infected,” she said.

A bid by wastepickers to return to work during the lockdown failed. As reported by GroundUp, the court dismissed the application brought by Lawyers for Human Rights on behalf of wastepickers. In responding to the application, the government through the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs said that wastepickers are not engaged in waste removal but in an economic activity that entails collection of abandoned material.

Melanie Sampson said that during the lockdown, they have noticed that municipalities are contracting private companies to do separation at source, thereby competing directly with wastepickers who do this for survival.

Wastepickers say that they have been neglected in government’s relief measures as the lockdown continues into its fourth week in South Africa. Photo by Sharon McKinnon

In a statement, the Department of Environmental, Forestry and Fisheries said that through a partnership with the packaging industry, it has secured a plan to assist wastepickers who have lost their livelihoods during the national lockdown period.

Meanwhile the C19 People’s Coalition which represents 245 civil society organisations has called on government to take a decision to top up the child support grant with R500 as this could assist in replacing income lost to the lockdown. President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to address the country about Covid-19 economic and social relief measures this evening.

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