Connecting Waste Pickers During the Pandemic

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CataSaúde Viraliza
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Sonia M. Dias, Ana Carolina Ogando, Yola Verbruggen


The COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted waste pickers in Brazil, who lacked the protection they needed to safely do their jobs and thus to maintain their livelihoods. WIEGO’s CataSaúde Viraliza project – an online capacity building course – was created in Brazil in 2020 as a response to these challenges. It aimed to raise awareness about COVID-19 protocols, decent work, coping strategies and organizing. Another important goal was to create lasting connections during a time of isolation between organized and autonomous workers, as well as among waste pickers in the Latin America region.

Together with several partners, including the National Movement of Waste Pickers in Brazil (MNCR), Nenuca Institute for Sustainable Development (INSEA), the Observatory for Inclusive Recycling (ORIS), Núcleo AlterNativas de Produção-UFMG and Pimp my Carroça, we designed and implemented the project.

A team of 40 staff from the various partners worked together remotely to facilitate this course for 456 registered participants in March 2021. On top of that, we had a transmission list of about 150 waste pickers who weren’t formally registered for the course but did have access to the content (they could not participate in the interactive WhatsApp groups). Of the registered participants, over 1 in 4 of the participants were autonomous workers and over 60 per cent were women waste pickers. Eventually, we had an additional 200 followers on YouTube and nearly 400 on Facebook, the majority of them women.

Invitation to an online Live event vaccination
Invitation to an online Live event vaccination

It was a unique experience for many workers who for the first time exchanged experiences with waste pickers from the other side of the vast country that is Brazil, and even from Latin America. This was possible because of the unique digital nature of the course, which allowed for a wide range of participants.

For MNCR leader Madalena Duarte, “Cata Saúde was a milestone” which gave waste pickers “encouragement to grow”.

The use of popular education and communication tools, such as the use of accessible language and a variety of formats including, video, audio and cards were key elements of the course. Through a continued flow of communication, participants remained engaged.

The course was conducted using three online platforms: WhatsApp for the classroom, where we held discussions about the content of each course module and organized specific times for participant exchange. Facebook acted as a library for all course content and for complementary materials. Through open and interactive YouTube or Facebook Lives, the project enabled discussions based on workers’ experiences and quality content on thematic issues – including with bureaucrats and technical experts – for a broader audience of waste pickers. The Lives always began with a short educational clown skit (Portuguese only).

The emphasis was on the participation of the waste pickers, also in the design of the course – they helped choose the themes to cover and curate the theater skits. We discussed a wide variety of themes including living with the pandemic in the waste picking sector, the improvement of selective waste collection systems and protection of waste pickers during COVID-19, vaccines, economic strategies, and social security – which was added on waste pickers’ request.

The participants became the most important disseminators of the information and acted as mobilization agents for the COVID-19 protocols. Participants reported an increased understanding of these protocols after the course from our endline survey.

We organized two sessions in which we facilitated the building of connections among waste pickers in Latin America. These exchanges were an opportunity to talk about CataSaúde Viraliza and the support given to the secretariat of the Brazilian waste picker movement as part of the funding. We also invited participants from other countries, including Colombia, Argentina, Chile, to share their experiences in fighting COVID-19. It was a very important session for our participants, especially those who never before had the chance to interact with workers in different countries.

Testimonies of waste pickers attending the course attested to the greater connection between organized and autonomous waste pickers. As one non-organized waste picker stated:

I’m very happy to have participated in this interaction, to meet all these people, it’s had a very strong impact. I feel represented by you and this journey of learning has been gratifying, of exchanging ideas, not only about what we endure. All of the discussion on PPE was helpful and in many of our day-to-day moments. These are the things that can help a waste picker feel valued, to make the work more decent.

Invitation card for the Latin America exchange
Invitation card for the Latin America exchange

The waste pickers also benefited from the safe space that the course created for them to exchange experiences and ideas, particularly given the isolation that many were experiencing at the time.

“The content helped clarify doubts on COVID-19. The course arrived at the right time and at a moment of a lot of psychological pressure. The participation in the group and Lives served as therapy for me.” – Evaldo Cristiano Garcia, an autonomous waste picker.

The course also served to sensitize waste picker leaders to the personal challenges workers in various circumstances are facing. We now have set up a WhatsApp group to discuss localized issues, so there is a decentralization of information which helps to address specific worker issues in certain areas.

Through the project we provided immediate material support, such as personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers, food baskets, to 15 mutual aid local actions in 10 cities in Brazil. In some places, workers were able to start a dialogue with municipal officers and present their needs, in some cases even about vaccines.

A visual card from one of the mutual aid efforts
A visual card from one of the mutual aid efforts

The participants were offered to join existing worker WhatsApp groups following the course, including one by the national movement of waste pickers and one mixed WhatsApp group, and many joined.

One of the key factors of success for CataSaúde was the commitment, the dedication, and creativity of the whole team – coordination, tutors, online facilitators and catadores who worked in mobilization. In a time of great uncertainty, stress, and loss, drawing from interdisciplinary perspectives and building a network of solidarity across the country helped CataSaúde maintain momentum.

In addition to increasing knowledge of COVID-19 protocols and worksite safety protocols, one of the great achievements of this online course was the establishment of relationships of trust amongst organized and autonomous workers and partners. We hope these synergies will be helpful in future collective action.

The project was financed by the Open Society Foundation and WIEGO.

Top photo: Advertisement for the CataSaúde Viraliza project in Brazil
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