FRONTLINERS -- probably one of the most used words this year next to "Covid," "positive," "pandemic," and "ayuda." Every day, society asks us to honor them and provide them in any way possible with better working conditions. Sadly, when we talk of frontliners, we only refer to the medical workers fighting the pandemic. A broader definition may include local government workers who go around the community to distribute relief goods or the tanod checking on curfew regulations. But what about our basurero?
Waste pickers (or the informal and independent garbage collectors) and waste workers (those employed by the government and the private waste contractors) play a crucial role in our community then and especially now during the pandemic. While the majority of us stayed home, they, like the medical and local government workers, went about their daily grind at work -- waking up early, collecting waste, and in some instances segregating the waste in areas were waste segregation is not practiced.
Often without proper personal protective equipment (PPEs), waste pickers and workers brave the streets to collect our waste, consciously trying to forget the dangers of the pandemic because who else will collect the waste if not them and who will take care of the waste pickers and workers if they will not work? The ayuda is never enough. Prior to the pandemic, waste pickers and workers earn just enough for their daily expenses. Staying home is not an option. Not only do they lack PPE's, health insurance is often unavailable to them.
The situation is the same across Asia. It's not only the Filipino basurero who are in this dire situation. In India for example, some waste pickers had to go home to the provinces because they could no longer pay their housing rental. With more people staying home due to the pandemic, the volume of waste has increased but junk shops have stopped operating, displacing waste pickers.
While some waste pickers and workers see it as a blessing that they can continue work despite the pandemic, we must not allow the injustices of their current working situation to continue.
As individuals, there are things we can do. We can start by reducing our waste (think of the plastics waste that comes with online shopping), choosing reusable masks, and segregating our waste at home. These simple acts ensure that waste pickers and workers are not exposed to possible Covid waste. From here, we can open our doors to them by providing them with hand sanitizer or soap and water outside our homes for their use during waste collection. Then we can urge our local community to provide them with better working conditions. Organizations across the globe have raised funds like the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Emergency Solidarity Fund which provided mini-grants to members and their communities of waste pickers and workers hard hit by the crisis while others have pushed for policies for hazard pay, proper PPEs, and health insurance. In the Philippines, EcoWaste Coalition and Mother Earth Foundation are pushing for hazard pay for waste workers and inclusion of waste pickers in the local government program and budget. We can research these best practices in other communities and apply it in ours or push our leaders to implement policies that best fit our local situation and give these initiatives our all-out support.
While the Covid crisis has made some of us feel helpless, there is always something we can do to help empower those who need us the most. So I'd say let us empower the basurero. Let us uplift their role in our community, in society, and in the world. Let us celebrate the unsung frontliners of this pandemic. Maria Sonia Astudillo
Sonia G. Astudillo is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific Communications Officer. Visit www.no-burn.org/contribute if you want to help waste pickers and workers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org