DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Early in the morning, when the call to prayer echoes through the streets of Dhaka, Rina Akter heads off to work. As she walks, she is sometimes taunted by others on the street.
“People tell me I have a bad smell, that I am doing a dirty job,” Akter says. “They don’t understand we have to do this. We don’t have the opportunity to do anything else.”
Officially, Akter is a “waste resource worker.” In practical terms, she is one of an estimated 400,000 people who mine landfills in Bangladesh for recyclable material they can sell.
Gram Bangla Unnayan Committee (Committee for the Village Development of Bangladesh) has studied these workers. The executive director, A.K.M. Maksud, says most are women and many of them support children and other family members.
Maksud says the women often bring their children to the landfill.
“They work all day with her, in the rain, in the sun. There is no shelter,” he says.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is working with Maksud’s agency to support women at the Dhaka landfill. Gill Bedford is MCC’s Program Administrator in Bangladesh.
“Some of the poorest of the poor are so desperate that they look to ways of making money that put their health and their children’s health at risk,” she says.
Most waste resource workers wear poor footwear and no gloves as they dig through the mountains of trash. Bedford says some have already been diagnosed with AIDS.
To address that, MCC offered HIV/AIDS awareness training to 30 women at the landfill, including Akter.
“I learned to be careful about how I collect waste,” Akter says. “I pay special attention to sharp objects, such as needles.”
The workers also risk injury, even the loss of limbs, if they get too close to heavy equipment. Akter says the training convinced her to change how she collects waste.
“Before I didn’t wait until the vehicle finished dumping before I got close,” she says. “Now, I and the other women wait until the risk is lower.”
Maksud says there’s talk of organizing the workers into a marketing cooperative, so they can negotiate higher prices for the waste they collect.
Akter would welcome that. She currently earns at most 200 taka ($2.00) a day. And like many waste resource workers, she suffers from chronic and debilitating illness.
“In a month I cannot work 10 or 12 days because I am too sick,” she says. “I have stomach pain, cold, cough and fever. And also some bleeding.”
The children of waste resource workers attend an informal school on the edge of the landfill. MCC has provided uniforms for 60 students and school kits. MCC also supplied the workers with essentials such as mosquito nets, blankets and bed sheets for their homes.
Julie Bell is a senior writer/editor with MCC Canada