Green Africa Youth Organization’s (GAYO) work with waste pickers in Ghana is centered around issues concerning working conditions and the rights of waste pickers to continue their work. In 2017, they worked with informal recyclers in Cape Coast Metropolitan Assembly, a dense district that is home to more than 8 percent of the people living in Ghana’s central region. Members of GAYO, like Desmond Alugnoa, were able to gain insight into aspects of the waste pickers’ struggle there by conducting interviews with recyclers, district officials, and Zoomlion, Ghana’s major waste management company. The content of this article is exclusively informed by what members of GAYO were able to learn through these interviews. Waste pickers in Cape Coast are not organized because they participate in the informal economy, making their personal safety and job security rather precarious. For the past few years, workers in this industry have made their living by finding the materials that are in demand by middlemen and businesses. Recyclers have searched in the streets of local communities by going from household to household, or at the local dumpsite where they sort through the piles of garbage and find what they need. However, their work in the community as well as the at the dump site has been made difficult by the policies and actions taken by waste management companies and local governments.
In Ghana, governments zone the various towns and dumps, and waste management companies like Zoomlion have contracts to collect and dispose of solid waste in predetermined spatial jurisdictions. When some of these companies also decide to extract recyclables from collected waste, they come into conflict with waste pickers who have been collecting recyclable materials from the houses in the community. In these situations, many waste pickers have sought to avoid the conflict by visiting houses before the waste management companies do in order to collect what they need (e.g. bottles, cans, etc.), leaving the collection of the unrecyclable residuals to the companies.
Another site of the waste pickers’ struggle in Cape Coast has happened at the open dump site. The government assemblies are mandated to manage these sites have deemed waste picking activities illegal because the waste pickers are not registered, despite there being no existing avenues for them to register. Although waste pickers perform an environmental service for their work and extend the operating lifespan of the dump site, district assembly members and members of the department of waste management still assert that they shouldn’t be there. There has been no formal relationship between waste pickers and district beyond government workers harassing the waste pickers and telling them to leave the dump site because it is a risky environment. And while waste pickers in Cape Coast’s dumpsite do face unsafe working conditions, the actions taken by the government actually run counter to their alleged concerns for waste picker safety.
Summarizing the words of local waste pickers:
“Sometimes they come here to remove us, and sometimes when they come to dump the waste they intentionally try to hurt us. We are also facing a lot of risk because all different kinds of waste are combined and dumped here and we are here only to collect recyclables from solid waste. Unfortunately, there is also liquid waste nearby. There is continuous planning by the assembly to make space (for more solid waste). But other than that, we wouldn’t be facing as much risk.”
From this it is evident that waste pickers are facing danger not only from the site’s hazardous layout and a lack of proper protective equipment, but also from hostile government workers who make their lives even more difficult. The district’s assertion that waste picker removal is the only solution to protect them from these dangers is contradictory and fails to consider how waste picking is one of the only livelihood strategies that Cape Coast’s urban poor have (other than criminal activity). Many of the waste pickers at the dump site are youth and women who began their work after junior high or high school due to high unemployment rate and lack of other opportunities.
When Desmond from GAYO asked district assembly members whether they had any plans to provide protective equipment or allow waste pickers the freedom to work without the threat of government opposition, the response given was a sadly unsurprising no. When asked whether the government should find a way to accommodate the youth and women who have few other options other than waste picking, the assembly gave a very straightforward answer in the form of a question: “If you say there’s no employment, does that justify that someone should steal?” This response highlights the detached and antagonistic stance the government has towards its poor in general and its waste pickers in particular.
In late 2017, members of GAYO also interviewed WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), an international organization that empowers women in the informal economy. WIEGO is present in a small part of Ghana’s Accra region, and were asked whether they had any plans to expand their work beyond the community they are working in now. While they expressed concern for the desperate situation of waste pickers in Cape Coast and other regions of Ghana, they wanted other groups to begin mobilizing these different regions into groups before WIEGO becoming involved. Unfortunately, other than the formation of Susus - small informal credit unions which help groups of waste pickers save financial resources - this is not what GAYO has been seeing in the country. In Cape Coast, waste pickers have grown acutely aware of their struggle, but have not as of yet come together to organize for the formal recognition of their work and for safer conditions. We can only hope that they continue surviving the district’s attempts at privatizing access to their livelihood until they march forward and demand what they truly deserve.