Interview with Suman More, Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH)
Please tell us about yourself and your organization?
My organization’s name is Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, based in Pune, India. It is a trade union bringing together waste pickers, waste buyers, waste collectors and informal recyclers. I am a waste picker and I used to collect waste, particularly plastic materials on the streets. I am a trade union member, and in the past five years we have created a cooperative for waste collectors, SWaCH, and as a coop member I no longer work on the streets. Now I go from house to house, door to door offering waste collection service. It is a municipality approved service and we support the municipality by providing this service. We are not paid by the municipality, but by the service users. The municipality provides a secondary collection system from the garbage containers, not a door to door collection system.
So we collect the waste, take it to fixed points where it is collected by municipal cars. After collecting, we compost organic waste and send recyclables for recycling. I consider myself an environmental worker.
You started as a trade union member, and then later became a member of a cooperative. What are the linkages between SwaCH cooperative and the KKPKP trade union?
The Union started SWaCH cooperative, so there is a close link between the two. Most of the cooperative members are also Union members, and the Union also runs other services for members, such as a credit cooperative, health services, and awareness on issues like child marriage. We work against the practice of child labour, and we also have a small loan programme. We work against violence at workplace;
if there are problems among workers or with clients, we take it to the Union and try to solve the issue. We also work to support women who have suffered from domestic violence, and try to prevent it by educating the communities where we live. We promote education by offering incentives to children to stay in school, and we give higher education loans. Both the union and the cooperative are like families to us. Our children have become educated because of this and now they have options other than waste picking.
How does the cooperative promote good labour practices for waste pickers?
We used to have to put our hands in the mixed waste to take out the recyclables. SWaCH campaigns for segregation of waste at source. Now we get more and more recyclables already separated, and we do not have to go through the garbage containers. We also have a “we-collect” collection points where clients gift us items they no longer need, for example clothes, which we can then use or sell. We have medical and accident insurance, and now we are negotiating with the municipality for 100 per cent medical assistance. Our advocates can now visit the municipality and represent us. We speak to the municipal officers; this was not possible before forming a cooperative as they would not listen to us. Now we can talk to them directly about our needs. Also our families feel safer because they know that we are better recognized and protected as workers.
What has been the response by the municipality to the cooperatives demands?
We are now able to phone the officers directly, sit with them across the table and discuss. Before we felt hesitant to approach them but now we talk to them directly and they respond to us. They have provided us with equipment for work such as push carts, gloves and uniforms. If we don’t get their support we can engage and negotiate with them.
Has there been a change in peoples’ attitudes towards waste pickers since the SWaCH cooperative was formed?
Earlier when people passed us on the streets they would cover their noses, they would not talk to us or even stand next to us. After the cooperative was established there has been a big change in peoples’ attitudes. We are treated with more respect. Even when the clients are not in the house they tell us to go in and get the waste from their baskets. Before they would call us thieves, so there has been a big change in their attitudes towards us. Also now our news appear in newspapers and other media. Often residents show them to us, saying “you are in the news!”
Has there been interest towards this model of organizing waste pickers into cooperatives in coordination and partnership with trade unions in other parts of the country or beyond?
People have been coming and learning what has happened in Pune. They say they want to start something similar. We have had visitors from many parts of India, and also from South Africa who are interested in the model. There are organizations of waste collectors elsewhere, but not in the same coop model. We are pushing for that and hope that this would become the preferred model for waste pickers across India.