Monday Apr 15

SPECIAL REPORT: The Women’s Cooperative of Waste Pickers and Domestic Workers

Organizing Forum International Dialogue in Salvador & Recife, Brazil

We held the gathering in between vast overstuffed bags of recycled items from previous days trash collection.  You might think that meeting inside a dump site would be nasty, but it was surprisingly manicured, with different sorted items stuffed almost over the brims of the huge plastic bags.  The light was shiny and bright at the top of the very tall single room structure because both ends were wide open to the elements, big palms trees swayed in the nice breeze, birds chirped away.

You would have thought that you were at a pavilion preparing for a picnic but were instead seated in a circle of ice blue stackable chairs speaking with leaders seated at a small table with some serious "finds" on it.  The members of the collective gave of their own hard-time lives to meet with us.  There were some tired looking dignified and brave women wearing their neat green collective t-shirts, and I thought of the Domestic Workers Union members whom we had met the night before who also had some very tired looking yet neatly, well-dressed, respectable strong women. 

Almost all of the recycler co-operative's women lived within sight of the garbage shed.  The president's name is Diana, and one could only be reminded of the goddess of the hunt, here for justice and fairness for marginalized workers.  We were joined by Michele Alugins, another leader of a different garbage pickers collective, a spirited exactor of information from us about how things are working in the garbage recycling world of other countries. Fortunately, Wade was able to bring them up to speed on the ACORN affiliate's operations in India and some of the issues facing the organized hoppers with Local 100, United Labor Unions. Translating like a joint collaborator, Josh was able to bring us closer together with a fresh and focused skill set, we all felt at ease.

Thoughts lit on the difficulties of the backbone of the informal collective, almost entirely women and mostly not young but intent to learn from us as well.  Details of their contracts to pick up garbage (without payment) with hospitals and condominiums sounded like a real plus in a world that guaranteed them no paid routes at all. No one pays them to pick up garbage at all.   In fact, when the government wanted, it gave away their contract for picking up garbage at a chain of grocery stores to someone else, taking a huge source of recycled goods from the collective.  If the sorting of various types of plastics and papers didn't sound tough enough, the overhead of this shoestring operation was such that they had been unable to pay for repair to one of their two garbage trucks when it had a moderate mechanical problem.  The work is so underpaid that everyone had another job or two, mostly informal. The president of the collective braids hair on the side.  Many also care for children and elders, or those who are ill, and can't work in the formal economy.

When asked about rape and violence's effect on the workers, the issue of caste flared up.  They bridled at how garbage pickers are overtly treated as if they have no value, so rape and violence are part of the equation. It also infects the government's practice of not recognizing them as workers or a union. Again, the Domestic Workers, who are also sexually abused in the households, many enslaved in homes, were also lifted up by the workers at the wastepicker co-op, in a testament to solidarity across women in Brazilian work and society.

Their anger brought to life another example of how important it was for them to continue to pressure their country to recognize them and their union, vulnerable women protected somewhat in a world full of machismo and men in power by their collective and fierce commitment for change.

Beth Butler is the head organizer of A Community Voice, part of ACORN International and based in New Orleans, she has been a community organizer with ACORN for more than almost 40 years. She was also part of the first Organizers' Forum delegation to Brazil.