In the last few months, there has been a flurry of activities in several counties led by a section of civil society to formalize informal waste pickers through the creation of legal entities. The main goal of these activities is to establish a national association of informal waste pickers similar to other associations for other professionals such as teachers.
Clean Up Kenya has in the past been involved in these conversations, but after consultations with social justice experts and grassroots organizations, we now warn that these efforts will in the long run hurt the rights of these vulnerable persons unless this becomes a government-led project.
We further warn that the ongoing efforts to form a national association of waste pickers are a complex scheme to create a special purpose greenwashing vehicle in a clever proposition to access donor funding while using waste pickers as a trojan horse.
Stanley Didi, a coordinator at Nairobi Recyclers and a former child informal waste picker, has observed that the problem of waste pickers is not that of formalization but that of improving livelihoods.
Already many informal waste pickers have some form of informal welfare group and they can be speedily formalized if counties put appropriate administrative measures in place, even without legislation.
In Langata for example, we have a group of over fifty young people who pick waste from homes in the Kijiji slum and manage a commissioned county waste transfer center for the community. They do this without any compensation from Nairobi County. In Ngong dumpsite, before it was closed down, the waste pickers had a thriving welfare group of over 150 persons. Almost all dumpsites in the country have some form of informal welfare group.
Community experts like Stanley are therefore deeply concerned about the sudden organizing activities being undertaken by a section of civil society.
“Why would informal waste pickers be formalized unless the only goal is to improve lives. The only effort civil society should be concerned with is to advocate for laws that protect rights, rehabilitate vulnerable persons within waste picking communities, and pressure government to come up with financial stimuli packages that improve livelihoods. Anything short of this is simply a scheme to use waste pickers and must be resisted,” Stanley observes.
This is why Clean Up Kenya has teamed up with Nairobi Recyclers to launch a ‘Justice for Waste Pickers’ campaign to draw attention to the plight of informal waste pickers across the country and to push the government to institute legislative and structural interventions to address this urgent problem.
This campaign was launched in Nairobi at Shalom House on 19th November 2021 and saw over fifty waste pickers from Nairobi and members of the civil society attend where, Hon. Waithera Chege, the Member of County Assembly for South B, Nairobi, was the chief guest. More similar events are being planned in other parts of the country.
Hon. Chege’s presence at the launch is important because she is a government Chief Whip in the Nairobi County Government Assembly and her political clout is vital in helping push for legislative intervention.
Our campaign is also being supported by a coalition of grassroots organizations that work with vulnerable communities on a regular basis. One of these organizations is Koinonia Community. Koinonia Community is important because they bring to the table close to a dozen organizations that have strong credentials, having worked with vulnerable persons such as street children over the last two decades. Led by Father Kizito, the community also has two radio stations.
Why is the issue of waste pickers so urgent?
Informal waste pickers undertake a fundamental role in Kenyan society. These workers collect waste from homes, offices, streets, bins and skips, markets, and work at both waste transfer stations in impoverished communities and illegal and legal dumpsites.
The ones who work in communities do so at a small fee, often picking waste from homes and businesses. Many of these live rough in informal settlements or are homeless. A few years ago we published a sad case of businesses in Otiende Langata and Riruta who use mentally challenged persons for this work.
Dumpsite workers on the other hand eke a living by recovering materials which they sell to recyclers. The same as those who pick waste on the streets and in communities. The sighting of boys sniffing glue (a drug), some as young as seven years, carrying sacks of trash picked on the streets on their backs has become a sad national symbol in many urban centers in Kenya.
In Kilifi and Ngong, some waste pickers live on the dumpsites with their families. In a town such as Eldoret, we have a large number of children, working at both the Huruma dumpsite or in the middle of town, all living roughly.
These informal workers labor in very toxic environments where they are shunned by society, suffering social exclusion and mental health problems. In fact, because of the untidy nature of their jobs, Kenyan society has come up with delegatory names for waste pickers, simply calling them Chokoras.
Despite these challenges, informal waste pickers still contribute tremendously to waste management and are simply providing a service that should be covered by the state. For the avoidance of doubt, the fourth schedule of the constitution of Kenya is very clear! Waste management is a devolved function and counties are solely responsible for refuse removal, refuse dumps, and solid waste disposal. Counties have however donated some of this work to informal waste pickers without any compensation.
If informal waste pickers were not providing this ‘subsidy work’, county governments would be forced to spend additional billions of shillings to collect waste from the homes and streets, and recover materials from dumpsites, as not to do so would reduce the lifespan of a dumpsite. Or the materials would have to be incinerated in the open air on our highly unregulated dumpsites. This would increase air pollution, compromise the health of urban populations and increase the national health budget.
On the other hand, the industry has not fully recognized the work done by waste pickers to manage packaging pollution. The industry has used waste pickers in the past as pawns in their fight with the government to manage plastic waste. In 2018, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers fearing that plastic bottles would be banned after the landmark banning of plastic carrier bags came up with a program aimed at increasing collections of PET plastics from the environment by offering a subsidy for every kilo of PET collected. The media then shortly reported that Coca-Cola was committing 4 billion Kenya shillings to fund this subsidy program which would have seen waste pickers earn more money. Unfortunately, none of this money has been given to waste pickers but only ends up in the coffers of a few recyclers and entities selling the false narrative of ‘people empowerment’ using slogans such as ‘taka ni mali’.
We are also aware of organizations within civil society that receive millions of shillings from donors under the pretext that they are trying to formalize informal waste pickers in the country, holding so-called capacity-building meetings in five-star hotels while failing to address the root cause of the plight of waste pickers.
All these cases show why there is a strong case for a law to recognize and protect the rights of informal waste pickers at both the county and national levels.
Why is a civil society-led formalization of waste pickers a problem?
Formalization attempts by a section of civil society have a legal, structural, moral, and credibility problem.
First, without a proper legal framework, anyone can claim to be a waste picker. At Clean Up Kenya we conduct quite a number of voluntary community cleanups and have over 3500 members from across the country. We also work with hundreds of community organizations, many operating in the waste management space. There is nothing then that stops us from approaching the state law office and registering a national association of waste pickers.
In fact, a counsel at the state law office has informed us that several entities have already used this loophole to register several associations for waste pickers, some of a national nature, and several in the last few months.
The question is who are these persons registering associations of waste pickers and what is their true agenda and should the government of Kenya pay attention? This raises the legal question.
On morality, most informal waste pickers are usually vulnerable persons. We have documented many cases of child labor in waste picking, abuse of drugs by pickers, and many issues of mental health. Can these vulnerable persons then have the legal capacity to organize without the intervention of government or some form of government oversight? What mechanisms are being put in place by those organizing to ensure that the interests and rights of these vulnerable persons are properly taken care of?
On credibility, these organizing activities are being done in an unstructured, scattered, opaque, and non-inclusive manner, often by a small group of people, many of whom are not legitimate informal waste pickers. What this means is that the vehicles they create could place roadblocks such as membership fees to restrict all legitimate waste pickers from becoming members or these entities can be used to deny some waste pickers access to specific opportunities or can be used to exploit their vulnerabilities to access donor funding or pursue partisan agendas that are not even in the interests of waste pickers. Here is a good example.
Recently an organization claiming to represent Nairobi waste pickers and is part of the ongoing organizing activities was invited to be part of the Kenya Plastics Pact launch. This came after Sustainable Inclusive Business (SIB), the greenwashing entity for Kenya Private Sector Alliance, tried to enlist Clean Up Kenya to the pact workgroup to represent waste pickers. The Kenya Plastic Pact is an initiative of the SIB and together with other foreign entities. The pact sets ambitious targets for the recovery of plastics from the environment. There are however concerns that informal waste pickers will further be exploited to meet these targets since they are the face of the recovery and recycling industry in the country. It is then problematic that an entity that has been registered in the last few months ostensibly to represent waste pickers’ rights could be persuaded to be part of an initiative that would hurt the rights of these vulnerable persons.
On the structure, because organizing can be such a big financial undertaking, there is no way these associations can operate without either government or donor money. It is not therefore financially sustainable for civil society to formalize waste pickers. This must be a government-led project.
This is why the issue of informal waste pickers has to be approached through the government and not the other way round, even if civil society efforts are well-meaning.
Government should lead the formalization of waste pickers
Because of a lack of a legal framework to address the plight of informal waste pickers, the first place to start is legislation. This legislation should define who a waste picker is and their rights, and put in place a framework to protect these rights.
The law should then outline a plan for the identification, mapping, and registration of all informal waste pickers starting at the sub-county level. This registration will inform the government on what remedial measures can be undertaken to help these vulnerable persons. Some of these interventions may include providing a government subsidy to every informal waste picker as well as setting up a fund to rehabilitate vulnerable persons within these communities.
Hon. John Kiarie, the Member of Parliament for Daogoretti South, Nairobi, who we recently interested in this subject, has suggested that the national government’s Inua Jamii Programme be extended to all informal waste pickers. This comes after we recently shared shocking photographic evidence of children as young as six years working on dumpsites with the MP, who has subsequently requested a statement from the Chairperson of the Department Committee on Labor and Social Welfare on the steps the Ministry of Labor is taking to protect vulnerable children from child labor in waste management.
Some other government-led remedial interventions for informal waste pickers may require coordination with other state agencies and civil society bodies. Children rights stakeholders for example will be needed to help integrate child informal waste pickers into school systems.
On these proposals, we have also been encouraged very much by the discussions we recently held with Nairobi Country Government Chief Whip, Hon. Chege to prioritize funds for informal waste pickers in the 2022 -2023 budget. But ultimately this must be anchored in the law.
These engagements show that it’s possible to interest elected leaders in these conversations and push for a government-led process. It is therefore a bit strange for a section of civil society to attempt to undertake such an important job without the involvement of leaders and government unless their interests are simply self-serving.
At Clean Up Kenya and with our partners, we definitely plan to continue to push for a government-led process. We are already sending letters to every elected official to interest them in the subject.
We are also expanding a coalition of grassroots organizations to support this initiative. See https://cleanupkenya.org/waste-pickers-petition/
Finally, we are developing a national database of informal waste pickers. So far, we have registered a few hundred from Nairobi, Eldoret, Kajiado, Mombasa, and Kilifi, and this database is set to grow in the coming months. To expedite this process, we are now developing an online portal for this database registration to be used by partner grassroots organizations. We are looking at this database as a tool that the government will need as the legislative process takes its cause. See www.kenyawastepickers.org
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