Undervalued and unrecognized, Turkish waste pickers at mercy of formal recycling sector

Informal waste pickers carry out 80 percent of the recycling in Turkey, but the lack of legal recognition for their work puts them at the mercy of formal players in the sector. Activists are not hopeful that waste pickers will be integrated into the formal recycling scheme in the near future as long as the sector remains under the patronage of private entrepreneurs and unemployment continues to be a bleeding wound for Turkey.

Photo by Erge Sahillioğlu.

Didem Atakan / Duvar English

In Turkey, there are estimated to be as many as 500,000 waste pickers (toplayıcılar): Those making a living via the collection of recyclables off the street and from waste bins. This number is only an estimate as there is no official data kept on them.

Waste pickers are the “invisible heroes” of Turkey’s recycling industry, according to their words, as 80 percent of recyclables in Turkey are collected by this labor.

Despite the crucial role they play in the recycling sector, they are regularly excluded from Turkey’s environmental legislation. As a result, they have become a kind of ‘ghost’ within the formal waste management scheme.

The Ankara-based Street Waste Collectors Association (Sokak Atık Toplayıcıları Derneği) is demanding the creation of a legislation recognizing waste picking as a formal profession. This would ensure that that the rights of waste pickers be recognized and accounted for as legal obligations, rather than largess.

Neither alive nor dead

In an interview with Duvar English, the association’s president Recep Karaman likened the life of a waste picker to that of the main character in the novel “Yaşar Ne Yaşar Ne Yaşamaz” (Yaşar is neither alive nor dead) by Aziz Nesin. The book exposes the hypocrisy of the Turkish state, as the state considers Yaşar dead when he comes to claim his inheritance, but resurrects him from this “official grave” when it comes time for him to pay taxes or perform military service.

“The workers’ biggest problem is insecurity. We lack social and health security,” Karaman stated.

The lack of official recognition comes at another price: social stigma. Karaman believes that the recognition of waste picking as a legal profession will “eliminate such prejudices” towards this line of work in Turkish society.

“People are judging our outward appearances and keeping their distance. But if they get to know us, these prejudices will go away. What this sector needs is visibility,” he added.

When asked why the integration of waste pickers into the formal labor system has not yet happened, Karaman said, “There is a lot of profit involved,” without elaborating further.

Waste pickers as a lucrative recycling system

In an attempt to realign state laws with those of the European Union, the Turkish government introduced new waste management regulations in 2004, which enabled municipalities to delegate the collection of recyclables to private companies. Consequently, the waste pickers’ legal status went from informal to illegal.

As the number of licensed recycling firms has grown over the years, some have argued that the informal network of waste pickers should come to an end. However, licensed firms have neither enough vehicles nor employees to effectively manage Turkey’s total recyclable collection needs. Waste pickers, however, operate at much lower operating costs, only requiring their large wheeled collection bags to work roaming the streets.

With such low income and a complete lack of worker rights, waste pickers form the basis of an extremely lucrative recycling system, which is why authorities have turned a blind eye to their existence.

Waste pickers sell their recyclables to unaccredited warehouses, which then sell to licensed firms or directly to recycling factories. In this framework, the smallest share of profit goes to the waste pickers themselves, whereas the highest share goes to the owners of recycling facilities.

This sector needs to be visible

The Recycling Workers Association (Geri Dönüşüm İşçileri Derneği) is another group that advocates for the rights of waste pickers. Its president Dinçer Mendillioğlu is similarly trying to make waste pickers’ labor visible and increase social awareness.

“This sector needs to be visible. The current system only benefits some actors. We need to end the exploitation of waste pickers. They are bringing recyclables all the way to the factories’ doorstep and are getting paid next to nothing. Would those at the top of the hierarchy want the system to be damaged?” Mendillioğlu said in an interview with Duvar English.

He pointed out that intermediary firms and factories currently bear no responsibility in terms of providing job security for waste pickers, but that they “are the ones who reap the profit.”

'Waste picking is not a profession, but a livelihood'

Ali Mendillioğlu, a former waste picker who has now become a public figure defending waste pickers’ rights, refuses to define waste picking as a profession, saying that people do not get into this work by “choice,” but because they have no other means of survival.

“Waste picking is not a profession, but a livelihood. So, we should, first leave aside the issue of workers’ social rights,” he said in an interview with Duvar English.

Often, waste pickers hail from the most marginalized communities in urban spaces. Until the 2010s, waste pickers constituted mostly Kurdish migrants and members of the Roma population. Today, however, their presence in the sector is gradually being replaced by Afghan immigrants.

“When it comes to waste picking, no one asks you where you are from or whether you are a Turkish citizen or a refugee,” said Mendillioğlu.

According to Mendillioğlu, the unrestricted ease of entry into this field of work is what makes the formalization of waste picking impossible.

As long as unemployment and the lack of legal work for refugees continue to be bleeding wounds within Turkey, the system will function as it is, Mendillioğlu stated.

“How are you going to stop people from waste picking if it is their last resort? Are you going to put municipal police at each dumpster?” he asked.

“Let’s hypothetically assume that all waste pickers in Turkey have been integrated into the formal system. What are you going to do when 100,000 more people end up in waste picking in three years' time? Will the sector also employ them? If not, how will they be stopped from going through trash?”

Aside from this, the recycling collection service is at the mercy of the private sector. This is another reason why waste pickers are prevented from strengthening their position, according to Mendillioğlu.

“How are you going to formalize the work of waste pickers within the current conditions? Are you going to have them work for licensed firms?” he asked.

Waste pickers in Turkey work 12-15 hours on average per day and collect up to 250 kg of waste daily. However, their income is nominal, considering the health risks they face, possible injuries, and the lack of social security benefits. They earn 100 Turkish liras (13 dollars) a day on average.

A kind of freedom

In this line of work, there is no formal employer-employee relationship, as waste pickers have no formal connection to the municipality or recyclable traders.

If the firms were to employ waste pickers, they would not offer them more than the minimum wage, which is 2,826 liras (380 dollars) a month. Although this amount is slightly above the current average income of waste pickers, the consensus within the sector is that waste pickers would not agree to it, as their current informal way of working at least provides them a certain level of freedom with flexible hours.

“As waste pickers do not answer to anyone while working, they become accustomed to this sense of freedom; working without a boss. There have been those who quit waste picking for jobs like waiting tables or hard manual laboring, but they have come back to waste picking. They could not stand to lose that freedom,” Mendillioğlu pointed out.

However, Mendillioğlu cautions against romanticizing such freedom and is pushing for a different system in which “no one should have to do this work,” unless they earn a sensible wage and have social security as well as status, as is the case for municipal garbage collectors.

“People pull a few strings in order to land a job as a municipal garbage collector, whereas they become a waste picker when they have no other option. But at their core, they are not that different.”

Waste picking is a 'form of falling'

“’Falling’ is a verb used for only two jobs [in Turkey]: falling into waste picking and falling into prostitution. Such work leaves no choice, but rather one falls into it,” he said.

In December 2016, the International Labour Organization together with the Turkish Customs and Trade Ministry held a workshop called “Understanding the Role of Waste Pickers and their Cooperatives in Waste Management and Recycling” in Ankara.

The meeting was attended by Turkish waste pickers as well as central and local government officials.

The establishment of cooperatives emerged as a solution for integrating waste pickers into the Turkish waste management chain – similar to the systems in Colombia, Brazil, and Italy -- but no concrete steps has been taken since the meeting.

Assistant Prof. Serter Oran of Zonguldak Bülent Ecevit University says that waste pickers need to strengthen their negotiation power with public authorities and other private actors in the recycling chain in order to gain access to adequate incomes, social justice, and healthcare.

“Waste pickers remain unorganized and they need support to improve their situation. They must have social rights like every other private citizen. They have to organize as other waste pickers have in Brazil, India, and Colombia in order to resist policies that threaten their existence,” Oran said.

“Social consciousness regarding waste pickers and their work and life must be encouraged. They are labeled as thieves, burglars, and addicts. All of these prejudices must be broken down. As a society, we must stand behind them and promote their cause; they are the hidden heroes of the environment, and they deserve a better life and future.”

(Editing by Dorothy Rau)