COVID-19 and Delhi’s Waste Pickers
By: Avi Majithia
Jagruti Devi is a waste picker and lives in the slums of Rangpuri Pahadi in Delhi. Her husband collects waste in the mornings and sells vegetables on a pushcart in the evenings, while Jagruti Devi segregates waste at home. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the lockdown was put in place, her husband hasn’t been able to go out to collect waste or to sell vegetables.
“We haven’t been able to work since March. We have no savings left. If we can’t go back to work, I don’t know how we are supposed to survive,” Jagruti says.
The lack of income during the lockdown manifested in the acute hunger that most of the urban poor faced in Delhi. When asked about food, Jagruti Devi showed her indomitable spirit, in the face of such stark difficulties.
“They distributed rations in our colony. I had to go stand in line for three hours, but I was able to get some rations. It didn’t last for very long because I also shared it with my neighbour. She’s old and she can’t go get anything for herself. I had to help her too.”
Jagruti Devi is one of the many informal waste pickers who make up 2-3 lakh of the city’s population and are instrumental in the city’s waste management system, as well as in providing environmental and public health benefits. A single person on foot is estimated to collect, sort and transport 10-15 kilograms of waste a day in Delhi, while those with tricycle carts can collect 50 kilograms a day.
Informal waste pickers currently recycle 20 per cent of the total waste generated in Delhi, approximately 2500 tonnes per day (CSE, 2017; Chintan, 2018). Through recycling 80 per cent of total waste, waste pickers provide innumerable benefits to the city, such as lowering pressure on landfills, reducing the quantity of waste for incineration and preventing waste from collecting in streets and near homes, thus maintaining public health.
In current times, waste pickers are facing immense health and economic threats in the city. Informal waste pickers are often the most vulnerable of the urban poor. Largely migrants belonging to lower castes, they live in slums with very poor infrastructure for services. Since the pandemic hit, most haven’t been able to go out and collect waste. The majority of their earnings come from selling dry waste and recyclables to scrap dealers but due to the ongoing crisis in the country, these junk shops have also shut down. The lack of work has sent many into a situation of absolute hunger and deprivation. When they are able to step out of their homes for work, they face police harassment.
A recent study of women waste pickers during lockdown in Delhi, shows that the majority of respondents faced difficulties in going out to collect waste because police are patrolling the streets and they lack protective equipment. 68 per cent of those interviewed, reported that the shutting down of godowns and junk shops have made sorting and selling recyclables nearly impossible. The study also reports that waste pickers faced a severe shortage of food and obstacles for accessing essential medicines and healthcare services. The severe impact of the pandemic on their life and livelihood means that, wherever possible, waste pickers are stepping out for work, irrespective of protections for their own safety and health.
Post-lockdown, many waste pickers have started going to work, but now they seem to be confronting another danger: the threat of infection without any protective equipment.
Waste pickers are on the frontline of defence against the spread of COVID-19, as they are managing the city’s waste while exposing themselves to disease and infection in the process.
As waste pickers resume work, the city needs to help protect them and their livelihoods:
- First, the government must acknowledge their role as essential and include them in the protection and insurance schemes for frontline workers. Their livelihood needs to be promoted and their health needs protection.
- The government should work to ensure provision of protective equipment like masks, gloves and boots, as well as sanitation products (soap and sanitisers).
- Living in some of the poorest slums of Delhi, waste pickers also need support for income and food security. An immediate cash transfer will help waste pickers recover from the economic impact of the lockdown on their lives.
- Finally, the government should work to ensure waste pickers have access to regular health check-ups and essential medicines.
COVID-19 and Delhi’s Home-based Workers
By: Malavika Narayan
Until about four months back, if one were to walk through the small by-lanes of the Savda Ghevra resettlement colony in North-west Delhi, it was common to find women sitting at their doorsteps alone or in groups, assembling toys from sacks of colourful plastic pieces. Others would be deftly cutting out sandal straps from long rubber sheets and bunching them up in sets of a dozen pairs each, while again others would be doing intricate bead work in a manner that seemed almost effortless. With the setting in of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures announced to curb it, this can no longer be seen.
The type of work described above is home-based work, a kind of informal employment that engages a large section of women in many urban poor settlements of Delhi. Home-based workers undertake paid work from within the confines of their own homes or premises. While some of them are self-employed, buy their own raw materials and sell the finished goods to local customers, others are subcontracted by larger firms in domestic and global supply chains.
Home-based workers in Delhi are engaged in a range of trades, from manufacturing to packaging, repair and food-processing. They can be seen doing highly-skilled hand embroidery and embellishment work for large global fashion brands, finishing up products manufactured in small factories, or packaging different kinds of products for sale. They receive this work through middlemen or subcontractors and are mostly paid at piece-rates.
Even though home-based workers work for long hours and contribute significantly to both their households and to their employer’s value chains, they are hardly ever acknowledged. Their work is undervalued as ‘time-pass’ activity and these workers do not get any of the protections or benefits that a worker is entitled to. The following chart maps some of the key issues faced by these home-based workers.
In the past few months, many of these challenges have been exacerbated. There is virtually no work coming into the colony. Many of the factories in the city, from where contractors used to source work, are shut and the middlemen themselves are out of work. Many women workers have unsold inventory and have not been paid for previous orders. Those who are self-employed are also without income, as they cannot meet with customers or go to the markets to procure raw materials. Today, even as the city is slowly opening up, it is still unclear if or when orders for home-based workers will revive.
The loss of income is causing severe hardship. Many of these workers have been unable to meet even their basic needs for food or milk. While a small number found an alternative way to earn an income —making masks, for example— or have another breadwinner in the house, others are in extreme distress. All or most of their savings have been used up and many workers have had to either sell their assets or borrow from moneylenders at high interest rates. The risks of contracting COVID-19 are still very high, which prevents workers from going out and looking for work.
Most home-based workers are women who face additional demands on their time for household chores, cooking and child care during the pandemic. And since schools and child care centres are closed, that work is without respite. The need to increase the visibility and recognition of home-based work is a longstanding demand and is even more urgent now:
- In the short term, targeted support for recovery of livelihood is a must. Many home-based workers are adept at tailoring work and governments need to engage them to manufacture masks and other essential protective equipment for which demand is now high, so that their skills can help others while enabling women workers to earn much-needed income for their struggling families.
- Organizations of home-based workers are also demanding that brands extend a one-time Supply-chain Relief Contribution (SRC) to all workers in their supply chains, during the COVID-19 crisis.
- In the longer term, home-based workers should be brought under the Minimum Wages Schedule and receive extended social security and other worker benefits. All actors along the supply chain, from brands and firms right down to the contractor who finally employs home-based workers, have to be made accountable to ensure decent working conditions as well as occupational safety and health.
In this moment of blurred boundaries between home and work in the face of a worldwide public health crisis, let us remember and stand by those workers who have always been working from within their own homes as an unrecognized but integral part of our economic system.