The dreams and reality of a waste picker

During “The Potential of Cooperatives & the Role of Waste Pickers in the Recycling Sector” workshop in Ankara, Turkey, on 20-21 December 2016, ILO COOP spoke to Fehmi Celikok, a waste picker from Turkey, about his life as a waste picker

Actualité | 21 décembre 2016
Fehmi Celikok
When he was young, he dreamt of being a guitarist. With age, his dreams have changed to a goal of becoming a champion skier. Meanwhile, in his everyday life, Fehmi Celikok, is a waste picker of paper and cardboard in Ankara, Turkey.

Celikok is a 32-year-old Kurd from Hakkari, Turkey. With dark hair and beard and a wide grin, he is what the French might describe as “comfortable in his skin.”

But life has been far from easy for him. After spending his childhood in a village and the town of Hakkari, he eventually came to Ankara where, while staying with a relative, he learned to do paper picking. 

He still studies at an Open University, although he says he’s not aiming for a degree, just knowledge. “The public looks for a degree, but a man lives for his dreams,” he says. His dream of skiing is fulfilled on winter Sundays, when he takes his poles and skis and heads to the piste.

On weekdays, his life is waste picking. After breakfast, Celikok, a bachelor, and his two younger brothers get to work. First, they take their collection from the previous day and bring it to recycling centres for sale. Then they head to their zone to begin picking.

There are four major waste picking groups in Ankara, with every one having an informally assigned zone for picking. It is estimated that there are well over 500,000 waste pickers in Turkey who collect a considerable portion of waste generated.

The waste pickers’ cooperative movement is expanding in Turkey. But, it still has growing pains. Some contend that the state doesn’t trust waste pickers. But Celikok is hopeful about the future for waste pickers. He noted that an ILO conference, held in Ankara in December and in which he attended, has finally brought together waste pickers, cooperative experts and government officials for dialogue.

Celikok picks all day - sometimes upwards of 12-13 hour shifts, until his trolley (which can hold up to 350 kilos of paper and cardboard) is full, and the truck that he and his brothers use, is completely full. As he picks, he sorts. On a good day, each of the brothers will make about 60-70TL excluding the fuel they need for the truck.

Life has its risks. He has no access to social security. There used to be a green card available from the Turkish government to access some social benefits. But now, there is an income test before you’re able to get the social aid that the card ensures. Instead, Celikok relies only on emergency care in case of illness or an occupational work related accident.

At the workshop “The Potential of Cooperatives & the Role of Waste Pickers in the Recycling Sector” held in Ankara December 20-21, 2016, Fehmi Celikok talked about his experiences, offered guidance and listened intently to waste pickers and cooperators from Argentina and France, as well as Turkish government officials. They shared suggestions and insights on how to improve the lives of waste pickers, and the role that the cooperative model plays in insuring adequate incomes, social justice and health care for those workers.