Recycling is not big on the list of ‘things to do’ in the Middle East, although some countries in the Gulf are finally waking up to the need to recycle reusable materials. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for example, are major producers of paper products and are currently taking measures to keep costs down by recycling. Other countries in the Gulf are also looking into ways to curb wastage and recycle renewable resources like water and plastic.
However, for many residents in the region, recycling is not so much about preserving the environment, as it is a viable way to put food on the table. You can see them walking past the nosebleed high buildings in Dubai or through the posh shopping districts of Bahrain, typically balancing scores of flattened cardboard boxes on their heads, or heaving a massive bag of aluminum cans and scrap metal on their shoulders. These are the ‘pickers’ of the Gulf.
Typically, the ‘pickers’ are poor male Asian laborers who have no other choice but to dig through the garbage for their daily meal or else return to their impoverished homelands. They hail from countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka. Their stories are the same no matter where they live or whom you ask. They were lured away from their countries with the promise of a better life in the Gulf with a steady salary and sustainable livelihood.
However, little did they know that labor unions are few and far between in the Gulf and getting paid on time is problematic.
So they pick through the garbage and waste of others. They are scavengers looking for whatever hidden ‘treasures’ can be found in dumpsters across the Middle East whether it is cardboard, glass, aluminum or steel scrap. What may seem like garbage to others is like ‘gold’ to them as they can sell it for cash. The money earned is not much, with several pounds of recyclables only fetching a couple of bucks.
Conty, a 45-year-old Bengali laborer, has lived in Kuwait for the past 5 years. By day, he works as a janitor in a government hospital, but by night he picks through the dumpsters of Kuwait. “I have no choice but to scavenge through the dumpsters,” he laments, “I only make about $60 a month and am often not paid for months on end.” According to Conty, he collects and sells about 2 pounds of recyclables a day. The work is back-breaking, with little reward. “If I do not find recyclables in the trash then I cannot eat,” he says, “ I was promised a much higher salary than I am getting now when I was first hired. And my contracting company currently owes me three months in back pay.”
The implications of this social phenonmenon are enormous. Remember that Conty works in a hospital. He and other workers, similarly forced to gather garbage to make up for income missed from their abusive employers, are exposed to increased risk of fatigue and illness by their moonlit occupations.
If unable to shower, “pickers” then carry the dirt from the garbage with them in their daily lives–thus potentially spreading disease (depending on what by chance they have encountered in the trash that they have had to dig through while scraping together a living). Hospitals, hotels, restaurants–any business with a need for good hygiene–are potentially impacted.
The plight of the downtrodden in the Gulf is not likely to change unless the embassies of these workers get involved and demand rights for their workers.