Friday 17 March 2023

The rag-pickers of Sylhet

It's the birds that you notice first. They are everywhere, perched on the diggers, sitting amongst the rubbish and circling above the forty or so, mostly women, workers picking through the waste. Several women are at the summit of the dump, looking for plastic and other recyclables. It takes a moment or two to realise that there are other workers further down, surrounded by the rubbish, almost devoured by it. And all the time the birds watch.

This scene takes place near Sylhet, capital of the Bangladeshi province of the same name. The city has many modern shops, restaurants and hotels but to the rag-pickers, (the generic term applied to those doing this work) it is merely the pace they go to sell  items they salvage from the dump. I spoke to Rubi aged 56. She is originally from Moulvibazar, just south of Sylhet and has been here for ten years. I asked her what she did before she began this work. "We were not a rich family" she said. "I had no father and my mother had to do farm work. Then I got married and I was a housewife, but we needed more income to cover the cost of food and accommodation so I came to work here with my husband". Her daughter Fahima also works here. "She's 12 years old" said Rubi, "I'd like to send her to school but who will pay for her books and how will we cover the money she earns that helps to buy food and clothes?"  They sell the plastic items they collect to a recycling company in the city. For one kilo of plastic they receive just 5 taka, about five pence. This is substantially less than the amount the rag-pickers I met in Rajasthan receive for the same weight. Rubi says that on a good day the family can make 200 taka (£2). One kilo of lower quality rice in Sylhet ranges from 55 to 70 taka. Basmati is definitely off the menu at around 350 per kilo.

Fahima is not the only child working here. Johir Islam is also 12. He said "I began working here two years ago. I have no father and I need to earn money to help my mother". He only completed first grade at school and is unable to read or write. Johir was working with another boy, also aged 12. We had just begun talking when a truck arrived carrying new garbage. The boys broke off, picked up their plastic sacks and ran towards it, hoping to find the best items before the other workers got there.

Apart from the odd pair of wellingtons. no-one was wearing protective gear. Rubi, who had by now been joined by several of her colleagues, curious to know what we were talking about, claimed never to have been injured at work. She said that she had never had a skin disease from handling the garbage, despite not wearing gloves. She seems anxious to emphasise this and the others nodded in support of her assertion. I had not mentioned specific diseases. Despite Rubi's claim, a recent report says that as many as 80% of child rag-pickers in Bangladesh have been injured at work, mostly with cuts of different kinds. It also mentions the prevalence of dog and insect bites and respiratory problems from inhaling chemical fumes and airborne dust. Eczema, itching and fungal infection are listed as being widespread amongst this group. 

Although Rubi and her colleagues denied having accidents, they went on to list the various hazards of their workplace. These included dogs, "rats as big as cats", needle sticks and occasionally, snakes. I had a close encounter with four dogs when I arrived. They ran towards me growling and showing their teeth before one of the older women chased them away. They retreated to watch from a distance but did not bother me again.

From time to time, the authorities issue statements about banning rag-picking and then go quiet again. But as Rubi asked "what will we do if this happens? How will we survive?". It reminded me of the occasional proposals to end hand-pulled rickshas in Kolkata and the subsequent protests of the ricksha men, worried that they will be unable to find alternative employment. Rubi's final words before returning to work were "I would like the Government to do more to help people like us. We want to educate our children but we also need to feed ourselves".

As I prepared to leave I saw that the boys had gone into the distance, searching for items away from the main dump. I also noticed Fahima amongst a group of older women workers. She was looking into the distance, perhaps wishing to be somewhere else. But she was in the garbage, picking through the city's  waste under a dark, grey sky, with the sickly smell of decay and under the threatening gaze of those birds.

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