“Every day I separated waste on roadsides, people would cover their nose when they passed by. We were treated like the trash we collected.” Suman More’s relatives would avoid her in public places, and she was shunned from family functions. But she was busy anyway; she needed to devote most of her time collecting garbage to make the money that would feed her family. Nobody knows the exact number of people surviving on the meager income provided by waste picking. A recent study estimates 100,000 waste pickers in Delhi alone, and we know that globally, they number in the millions.

Waste pickers compete for valuable recyclablesWaste pickers compete for valuable recyclables

Even in this work category, men earn consistently more than women. For example, females may not have access to the most valuable recyclables. There is no employer-employee relationship in this trade, even though contractors may organize some of the waste picking. They are a self-employed population with no formal or legal relationships with the municipality or the recyclable traders. They often suffer from work related ailments such as musculoskeletal problems and respiratory or gastro-intestinal diseases. They also face regular harassment and extortion from both the police and the municipal authorities and no social security benefits are available to them.

Suman speaking at a conference in Durban
Suman speaking at a conference in Durban

At 45, Suman More has become a community leader representing her co-workers all over the world. At age 13, she started collecting garbage together with her parents, an illiterate family from Maharashtra State. Education was out of everyone’s reach, so when she turned 14, Suman was married off and by the time she was 22, she had four children. At first, she planned to start a small-scale business but banks refused to back her up financially. She had no choice but to return to the life of a waste picker, this time with a little help from her husband.

“Both of us wanted to provide good education to our children. With a daily earning of around 10 to 15 Rupees (about 20 cents), we somehow managed to get admission to the municipal school. This was a huge accomplishment, as schools were not ready to admit waste pickers’ children.” Suman says. “My kids went through tough times in their school days. They never carried a lunchbox, because we couldn’t afford them. I used to get up early in the morning, collect the waste, and sell it off as early as possible. The money I made would hopefully allow me to bring bread and tea to my kids during lunch breaks. The notebooks they used were made out of scrap papers collected from waste. But neither of them ever complained.” Today, her elder Son Laxman is a journalist married to a Computer Engineer.

Suman's positive attitude towards her work turned her into a leaderSuman’s positive attitude towards her work turned her into a leader

Suman walked long distances and worked from dawn to dusk. Her children helped her to sort waste at home, because sorted scrap fetched a better price. Life went on until, in 1992, the Indian Trade Union of Waste Pickers (KKPKP) came to visit her and explain the need to organize waste workers. The benefit provided by the organization included getting access to waste at the source, lesser work hours for the same pay, cleaner working conditions and insurance. Despite resistance from her neighbors, Suman decided to join the union, a decision she never regretted. Since then, Suman has represented waste pickers in more than five countries; she was also part of a Climate Change conference held in South Africa and the 2015 International labour conference in Geneva.

Today, there is no one Suman can’t engage in casual conversation over a cup of tea. She is now in a position to have a proper lunch break during her working hours. She will tell you about how her own daughter was married after 18 and that, most impressively, no dowry was involved.

“I had no option than doing the same work than my parents but I put my heart into it because I made it a point that my children will not continue along this path. Today they are both settled in great careers and progressing in their respective fields of work. This is the life I dreamed for them during all those years picking other people’s waste. I might have been a waste picker but I had a dream.”

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