April 17, 2020

Coronavirus puts people in poverty at highest risk

Child collecting recyclables from massive pile of garbage

Social distancing could result in the deaths of thousands of people in poverty before the virus even touches them

While many of us are confined to our homes, looking for new sources of income, or working extensively in essential jobs – waste pickers around the world are facing their own version of COVID-19 life. And for them, the effects are immediate and potentially disastrous.

What is waste picking?

Around 15 million people on this globe make their daily living informally, by picking up waste that others leave behind. Bottles, bags, caps, lids, straws, plastic, metal, and paper. Often in dangerous conditions like landfills.

Waste pickers in society

And because they’re on their own, most of them have no health insurance, no worker’s comp, and no social or political protections when they really need them.

You see, in many areas of the world, people who salvage for recyclable materials are marginalized on all sides. People who pick waste every day may even have to oppose policies that aim to cut off their main source of income.

With social discrimination and exclusion as an everyday reality, they turn their focus inwards, to their families. Feeding children and parents can be a day to day challenge. In other words, missing even a single day of picking means people go hungry.

In places like Latin America, South Africa and India, groups of waste pickers have mobilized to attempt to show their communities how valuable their environmental services really are. In reality, waste picking is a win-win for rural villages and urban cities alike, but prejudice and ignorance tend to weigh heavily on their fight.

Waste pickers bring benefit to the economy

It’s often forgotten, but every single worker is part of the economy. We all require food, shelter and goods. We all belong to many supply chains, and we are all part of the recycling industry, even if we’ve never thought about it that way. And speaking of, the recycling industry depends on waste pickers more than any other role.

Some communities are embracing this truth. In India, certain cities have invested in sanitation facilities, a model scaled up across multiple parts of the country. And similar to the way several countries have created space for street vendors to help ensure their livelihoods, Brazil is formalizing waste picking to help low-income urban populations achieve the same goal.

Woman sits in waste picker neighborhood

How coronavirus mandates are affecting waste pickers

Being asked to stay home is ultimately a death sentence for waste pickers who earn their meals and shelter one day at a time. Plus, with restaurants and bars closing all around the world, there simply isn’t as much waste to find and sell.

Back in March, in Tehran, children who pick waste in the streets were being extradited back to their cities of origin in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In some cases, this could even mean they’re leaving their families behind in Iran. Officials in the welfare agency of the government are denying any plans for protective centers for these children, because proper social distancing would be impossible. But there is also a concern that sending children back to other countries could spread the infection.

Around the world, people are advocating for themselves, demanding fair working conditions, asking to be part of stability packages, and asking for separate vehicles to collect garbage from people who are quarantined due to the virus, so it can be brought to a biomedical waste incinerator.

But in some municipalities, waste picking is straight up banned as social distancing takes hold. In Ankara, Turkey, waste pickers understand and approve of this decision, but they’re asking for assistance. They are less worried about falling ill and more focused on surviving at all.

How some cities are working to help waste pickers

Under normal conditions, waste pickers often don’t have the tools and equipment they need to get the job done safely. While many municipalities are working to change that, cleanliness has become even more essential since coronavirus struck.

What has also become clear due to COVID-19 is that when one of us get sick, all of us are at risk. We have new incentive to help each other, especially those that are so far below the poverty line. Some cities around the world are responding well, by providing hygiene or health kits with gloves, masks, and soap for starters, while they consider what other actions to take.

It makes sense, since these workers are technically maintaining the health and hygiene of those cities and their limits every day.

Making waste pickers a real part of the economy

People who collect waste every day are a part of a larger supply chain whether they know it or not.

For example, a person who collects used beer bottles and delivers them to a recycling station or back to the original company itself, is saving both the recycling station and the brand money. Big money. Many breweries and other brands can buy recycled bottles and re-use the material for cents on the original dollar.

The bottom line is, waste pickers are an important part of any global supply chain, but they are not being treated that way. Since most of them use their daily earnings to pay for the next day’s living, and their transactions aren’t accounted for – saving money, taking out a loan, or even opening an account at a bank can prove impossible.

Technology that changes the way waste pickers work in society

Online platforms, like BanQu, are enabling brands and waste pickers to work together, tracking supplies and transactions on both sides. Brands can use the technology for inventory control, waste prevention, records management, risk management and much more. And waste pickers can use the platform as an economic passport – or a way to prove to banks and businesses that they have a work history, and they have earned and deserve that job, bank account or business loan.

What can you do for waste pickers right now?

  • Donate disposable latex or plastic gloves and regular masks
  • Donate soap or provide a place where waste pickers can wash their hands
  • Donate food and water to any organized groups you can find
  • Advocate for them to receive government assistance during this time
  • Demand that your favorite brands acknowledge the people who help them succeed

Where do we go from here?

Many brands are already looking to the future and taking advantage of the benefits of including everyone in their supply chains that plays a part. Raising waste pickers, and people at the other end of the supply chain – the originators like farmers and miners – out of poverty now will lower the need for immediate government assistance in a crisis later. As a global economy, we can ensure that every hard worker around the world gets dignity through identity. And since we can, we should.

BanQu creates blockchain solutions for some of the modern world's biggest challenges, such as supply chain transparency and identity platforms for impoverished populations. We believe that with blockchain's bright future, world poverty can become a thing of the past.