It is estimated that there are around 15 million people around the world working as waste pickers on huge rubbish dumps of up to 40 acres in size. Many of them are children or mothers of young children – in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, half of all pickers are children.
The life of a child waste picker is brutally hard. The hours are long and the pay is poor but more than that, the conditions are unimaginable. They are exposed to unhygienic conditions, toxic fumes, medical and sanitary waste, and injury from sharp objects and machinery. But their lack of skills, caste and disability discrimination and their dire poverty means waste picking is their only means of survival.
The reasons children end up as waster pickers are many. They are often homeless, either because they have escaped domestic violence and abuse or they have been abandoned because they are disabled or because their parents can no longer cope with their own physical and mental health needs. Some are still living with family but have to work to help make ends meet. Although waste picking is often referred to as informal work, this isn’t completely true. The dumps may be unregulated and in many cases illegal but they are still organised, often with middlemen who control the dumps and exploit the workers.
The impact on the children is great. Most waste pickers live in slums, in public spaces such as footpaths, bus or train stations, or in abandoned buildings. They do not have toilets or washing facilities. The smell of the dump never leaves them so they are constantly stigmatised. By day they work on the dumps but at night they may get involved in crime, sex work or drug taking. Rather than being protected by the authorities they are often beaten, arrested and imprisoned.
We have been supporting children connected to the rubbish dump industry since we were established nearly 30 years ago. Like all our programme work, each project is led by a local partner and tailored to the exact needs of the community, but there are common aspects to our work across countries: