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Johannesburg waste pickers organise to defend their livelihoods

Posted on 22/11/2017
By Vanessa Pillay
Foundation Visit

Four months ago, WIEGO’s project with the Commonwealth Foundation Waste integration South Africa (WISA) took an unplanned turn as Johannesburg’s waste-pickers were faced with a major challenge to their livelihood.

The city’s official waste management service provider, Pikitup, signed contracts with private recycling companies to expand Pikitup’s Separation at Source programme.  Separation at Source diverts recyclable waste away from landfills and encourages residents to separate their waste at home. In this way, according to Pikitup, recyclables remain clean and can be resold more easily.  Effectively, however, this would exclude waste-pickers from the recycling service they have provided for decades at no cost to the city and negatively affect the income that they earn from selling recyclable material.

WIEGO has been working with the waste-pickers of Johannesburg who collect, sort, separate and recycle the City’s waste from the main landfills as well as from the street sides.  There are 6,000 to 10,000 people in Johannesburg who depend on waste-picking work.  Unemployment in South Africa has reached a record 27.7 percent, so excluding wastepickers will create additional hardship.  By giving recycling contracts to private companies, the city is opting for a private system, when a less costly, more socially responsible and environmentally–friendly solid waste management programme, including waste-pickers, is possible.

Listen to a radio interview with waste picker representatives, Eva Mokoena and Steven Leeuw from Johannesburg about the  impact of  this troubling development.

Aware of the potential introduction of the Separation at Source programme, WIEGO and waste-pickers have been asking Pikitup and the City to disclose and discuss the contracts since September last year, but to no avail.  As a result, an Interim Johannesburg Reclaimers Committee (IJRC) was set up and in July waste pickers from seven regions of the City marched to protest outside Pikitup’s offices.  Eva Mokoena from the IJRC presented a Memorandum of Demands to the Managing Director of Pikitup on behalf of the Committee.  See a video of the protest on Facebook.

As a result of the campaign, Pikitup put a halt to signing any new contracts and acknowledged wastepickers as principle stakeholders in Johannesburg’s waste economy. Pikitup says that it is requiring the companies to include reclaimers, but it is leaving it up to companies that have no experience in integrating them to figure out how to do this and have not consulted with wastepickers on how they should be included. However, dialogue has now been opened up between Pikitup, the City of Joburg and the wastepickers, which is very much welcomed.

For waste pickers, the four key pillars of integration are: recognition as workers providing public and environmental services for which they should be paid; inclusion in the current and future solid waste management system; consultation on all decisions affecting their livelihoods; and, all of the above to begin with the registration of all waste pickers in a centralised database to ensure that the integration process is well planned, fair, transparent and able to be properly monitored. 

Negotiations to develop a framework of how the integration process will be implemented have been underway for the past three months.

See the WIEGO site for further information.

Vanessa Pillay is the WIEGO Organisation and Representation Programme Officer, Johannesburg



Improving the environment and the livelihoods of waste pickers

Informal waste pickers play a critical role in collecting and recycling the waste of South Africa's major cities, but their role is not well recognised.