Vietnam’s unsung recycling heroines have livelihoods ruined by Covid-19
- Across Southeast Asia, thousands of waste pickers – many of them women – help to recycle waste that would otherwise become landfill
- But plummeting prices for recyclables have hit them hard, and they receive no social security benefits nor a share of government pandemic relief
Luong Thi Huyen makes a living out of recycling what others discard. The 55-year-old earns about 100,000 dong (US$4.31) a day in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi collecting and sorting a wide variety of waste by hand.
“I buy from established sources like shops and restaurants. Cardboard boxes, plastic, iron, whatever they have I will buy,” said Huyen, who migrated from the northern province of Hung Yen in 2010 so she could support her son through university by picking and sorting trash.
They buy recyclables from households and businesses, which they resell through middlemen to the facilities where the materials are finally recycled, beginning the process again.
“The sector in Vietnam is often portrayed as dirty, poor and the bottom of the social status scale,” said Kasia Weina, co-founder of Evergreen Labs, a project development organisation based in the city of Da Nang that has conducted a study of the informal waste sector with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Vietnam Accelerator Lab. “This is rooted in cultural misunderstanding, misperceptions and ignorance.”
Despite their work often being of major benefit to municipal waste operators, Weina said the pickers often have to buy all their own equipment and have no access to insurance or any other type of social safety net.
“During the outbreak in March [Vietnam’s second], I went home for three months and was hungry,” Huyen, the picker, said. “I had no income. I came back [to Hanoi] in June to start working again. I put on a mask but I was very afraid.”
About one-third of Vietnam’s population aged 15 or above – some 31.8 million workers in total – have either lost their jobs or had their working hours cut in the year to September, according to a report by Vietnam’s General Statistics Office released on October 6.
Many of the country’s businesses have been left reeling or had to shut down completely, meaning less rubbish for the informal waste workers to collect – hitting their incomes as a result.
Nguyen Thi Phuong, 44, has run a collection centre in Hanoi with her husband for around 20 years and trades with about 30 informal workers like Huyen, but “because of Covid-19, people couldn’t make money, they shop less so they discard waste less,” she said.
A migrant from the northern city of Nam Dinh who was an informal waste picker herself for two years, Phuong said the amount of recyclables brought to her and her husband’s centre has decreased by almost 70 per cent this year over last – the couple usually buy anything they consider valuable and separate the materials into categories before they are picked up in trucks by other aggregators and taken to factories in northern Vietnam for recycling.
The subsequent loss of income has forced many Cambodian families to cut back on how much they eat, according to the UNDP, while many workers are fearful of catching Covid-19 through the influx of medical waste such as disposable masks being mixed in with recyclable materials.
Covid-19 fears for Indonesians along Cisadane River after medical waste ends up in waterway
Bangkok-based Diane Archer, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) who is part of a project that seeks to give Thailand’s informal waste workers the chance to benefit from innovations in waste management, said her team’s initial results show most workers have seen their incomes plummet this year, as they are finding less material to collect and the price of recyclables has fallen.
“There is still a lack of basic data such as on how many people work as informal waste workers, but addressing health and safety, particularly protective equipment like gloves, could be a good way to start engaging with [them],” she said.
Bangkok alone is thought to save an estimated 500 million baht (US$16 million) a year in waste management costs thanks to the recycling done by its legions of informal waste workers, Archer said, citing a 2018 study conducted by SEI and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
Weina of Vietnam-based Evergreen Labs said there should be initiatives to integrate informal workers into municipal collection schemes and recycling operations to give them semi-formalised opportunities.
“This would empower the local municipalities’ waste efforts while simultaneously providing these workers with the benefits they seek from the government,” she said.