The potential of co-ops for waste pickers in the recycling sector in Turkey

There are many layers to city life. Peel back one layer in any Turkish city and you are likely to find waste pickers. They are mostly migrant women...

There are many layers to city life. Peel back one layer in any Turkish city and you are likely to find waste pickers. They are mostly migrant women and men living and working informally, collecting and sorting solid waste, including recyclables like glass, cardboard and plastic for resale or removal. They earn a modest living from waste supporting their families.

At the same time, they help keep cities clean, and advance environmental protection for municipalities. They are street smart and learn on the job about what is valuable and what is not. In an environment where households do not presort, they play an important role in solid waste management.

It is estimated that there are as many as 500,000 waste pickers in Turkey, including a growing number of Syrian refugees.

They are part of the informal economy, as they receive neither social security protection nor other benefits. Their incomes are directly dependent on the amount of waste they are able to collect, which may be an average of 200-250kg a day for work of up to 15 hours. They are often exposed to health risks from cast off items and possible injury.

Recycling is increasingly becoming big business in Turkey, with a growing number of companies getting involved. Residents have become more sensitive to the environmental impact of waste and big companies are realising there are profits to be made in recycling and waste management. In the current recycling systems, waste pickers play a key role. As the solid waste management systems modernise the future of these waste pickers needs to be addressed for a just transition to decent livelihoods.

The Turkish government has been realigning its national laws with those of the European Union. There is new regulation stating that if a firm buys waste from an informal picker or deals with informal unaccredited warehouses used by pickers, the firm runs the risk of penal sanctions of up to TRY 140,000 (around £32,000). This has led to companies being increasingly unwilling to deal with waste pickers for fear of penalties.

But, the waste pickers have the public on their side which has grown increasingly more vocal about demanding protection for these workers. In its response, the government reiterated that the goal is not to harm waste pickers, and that the new regulation is only focusing on established companies.

Turkish officials went on to say that those companies may continue to do business with waste pickers. The firms would only be prohibited from putting down on their balance sheets that the fees they pay waste pickers is under the category of “packing waste”.

As the number of recycling firms has grown, there are some that would argue the informal network of waste pickers should come to an end. But formal recycling in Turkey is still in a nascent stage employing a limited number of workers, and the gap that is being filled by the waste pickers remains for the foreseeable future.

Legal changes that disregard or attempt to erase the role of waste pickers will neither benefit the recycling sector nor the workers. Moreover, a number of Turkish municipalities recognise the vital role that waste pickers play in the solid waste management system and are supportive of them.

Assuredly, while these workers would welcome social security, health care protection, better equipment and other benefits and even the possibility of formal employment, they worry that the flexible hours they have, the benefits of having their freedom of movement and their connections to the community, would be at risk.

There is also the concern about how many of those informal economy workers could actually be employed within the nascent formal recycling economy in the immediate to short term.

As modern recycling evolves in Turkish cities, waste pickers need to be recognised for their value in getting the recycling job done and linked into municipal systems in effective ways.

Transition, if it is to be just for the waste pickers and beneficial for the municipalities, should be done in a phase-wise approach allowing for improvements to informal waste pickers’ work and working conditions in the immediate to short term and integrating them into the modern recycling system in the medium to long term.

Consider for a moment how this has been done in other communities around the globe.

The city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, has been a pioneer in balancing municipal needs with waste pickers’ contribution to solid waste management. Brazil, for many years, has laws and regulations to make recycling, job creation, integration and even social inclusion part of the country’s solid waste management programme. In fact, for more than fifteen years, waste picking (collection of recyclables) has been deemed a proper profession.

Co-operative enterprise model has played a key role for this success. In Belo Horizonte, there are eight co-operatives and more than four hundred affiliates helping to insure that the relationship between waste pickers and their municipalities’ benefits all involved. Door-to-door collection of recyclables, drop off systems, and curbside collection are among the methods that serve as pillars of good recycling and make the best use of waste pickers’ skills.

In another part of the world, Pune, India, waste pickers are underscoring how the formation of a waste pickers’ (workers) co-operative a decade ago has changed lives.

Largely comprised of women the SWaCH co-operative utilises door-to-door collections from homes, businesses, and shops as their mainstay. Laced throughout the co-operative structure are its key elements of training, education, community outreach and financial benefit for each co-operative waste picker member.

SWaCH is able to boast of some 600 tons of daily waste collected, with at least 90 tons of it heading to recycling. At the same time, social justice and individual dignity for waste pickers, who are members of the co-operatives, are strengthened.

On 20-21 December, Turkish waste pickers and government officials will have the opportunity to sit down and discuss their unique needs and how to better streamline and modernise the solid waste management business, while ensuring waste pickers not only receive fair payment but respectful consideration in the workforce and access to decent employment. They will be attending the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s ‘The Potential of Co-operatives and the Role of Waste Pickers in the Recycling Sector’ Workshop in Ankara, Turkey.

The workshop will be opened by Arif Sami Seymenoglu, general director of the General Directorate of Turkish Co-operatives in the Ministry of Customs and Trade, and Numan Ozcan, director of the ILO office in Turkey. Among the sessions will be one on the experiences of waste pickers’ co-operatives and other social economy associations from Argentina (FACyR) and France (AMELIOR).

Turkish government officials from relevant ministries will also present the legal and institutional environment for Turkish waste pickers. Municipal government representatives will share their initiatives working with waste pickers and their associations and co-operatives.

During session on organisations of waste pickers in Turkey participants from the Turkish Waste Pickers Association, The Recycling Workers Association and the Ak Dunya Recycling Co-operative will share the challenges they face and the strategies they employ in ensuring a just transition to decent jobs in urban solid waste management systems.

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