Roma Scrap Collectors Press for Recognition of their Profession
To support his nine-member family, Rahim Serif scours local garbage dumps, industrial complexes, and dumpsters for recyclable materials, averaging eleven hours and 50 miles at a stretch in his horse drawn wagon.
"We work in landfills, under high temperatures, in the bitter cold, without water, along side all sorts of filth and dirt. Some of us have no gloves and touch rotten debris, then we have to eat like that. It's a difficult life." says the 42-year-old Rahim, who lives in Bujanovac in Serbia. Rahim is the most productive collector of secondary raw material—iron, tin, aluminum, copper, brass, batteries and paper—in the country, collecting 55 tons of recyclable material last year alone.
In Serbia, as in many other Balkan countries, collecting materials to sell to recycling companies has served as as a source of income for many of the poorest populations for many years, particularly Roma (sometimes derogatorily called gypsies). And, because most communities don't have established recycling systems, scrap collectors play a critical role in waste management and resource efficiency by collecting, sorting, trading, and sometimes processing waste materials.
Within the waste management sector in these countries, however, these activities are not regulated, registered, and often not acknowledged by formal authorities, and little has been done in return to help scrap collectors live normal lives. Some 8,000 Roma families in Serbia are engaged in scrap waste collection, and according to the Union of Secondary Raw Materials Collectors, in Serbia last year they brought the state budget $70 million in taxes and fees, yet national and local authorities have done little to reward their hard and difficult labor.
Since 1998, the YUROM Center has worked on behalf of Roma citizens in Serbia to help them improve their quality of life and end discrimination against them. With training, mentoring, and financial support from ISC, YORUM trained Roma activists on effective advocacy skills from ten municipalities, building their capacity to organize, manage their micro-businesses, press for their integration into waste management strategies, and influence local and national policy making and job creation. YORUM also facilitated the formation of the 350-member Union of Secondary Raw Materials Collectors at the national level.
In just one year, these efforts have lead to significant steps to reform the national and local waste management system. As a result of sustained lobbying, the National Employment Service (NES) has registered and codified the position of individual collector of secondary raw materials within its Registry of Occupations. These workers are now able officially register their businesses, and plans are in place to secure health and disability insurance and pension plans for them.
Among Roma collectors, a new sense of dignity and civic and social responsibility has been awakened. Asim Music, a Roma collector from Nis, put it this way:
"Well, I expect the union to help us with everything. We don't have good wagons or tractors. If we had better means for transportation we could collect more waste. We don't have storage facilities, so we take the raw materials from the landfill to our homes. This is not exactly clean. In Nis, the union has helped us to fight police citations. If we had storage facilities, we wouldn't have to pass through the center of town with our horses. We don't have enough to live on. I have two kids and four nephews and nieces. All of us work. We work from sunrise to sunset. We work all day for 3000 RSD [about $43]. What to do? It must be done!"