Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 February 2003
Issue No. 624
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
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Trashed lives

The garbage collectors of the capital are mobilising against the state as the government moves towards privatising garbage collection in Cairo and Giza. Dena Rashed gauges what seems to be the beginning of a nasty dispute

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Garbage collectors take to the streets of their zarayeb in portest against privatisation plans; Monday's protest rally; sorting the day's collection; the zarayeb: an overview; old ways die out?; not much of a life, but what of the future?
"Could anything worse happen to us?" screamed Romany Agaby, one of Giza Governorate's traditional garbage collectors, the zabbaleen. Agaby had just discovered that the governorate had handed garbage collection in his area to a private foreign firm. He was one of hundreds of other zabbaleen who demonstrated this Monday in Ard Al-Lewa', Giza, in a campaign against the new companies.

Giza is the third governorate, after Alexandria and Cairo, to hand garbage collection over to foreign companies. The governorate has contracted a Spanish and an Italian company to dispose of the 3,000 tonnes of garbage that it produces on a daily basis.

The deal is valued at LE80 million per annum for the next 15 years.

Although the contracts were signed over six months ago, one of which was supposed to come into effect this Saturday, many of the zabbaleen in Giza were not aware of this development affecting their livelihood. Indeed, the contracts do not stipulate their involvement in this new scheme of private waste management.

Ard Al-Lewa' is only one of several zarayeb, corrals, in Giza, where thousands of zabbaleen live with their families. Despite the mounting tension, kids were running around, while girls and women moved among the piles of garbage, sorting the refuse with their bare hands. Men walked through the cramped alleyways, carrying loads of garbage on their shoulders. Things soon changed, however, as news got out that their livelihood was in the balance. Men put their garbage to one side and began to move towards an empty lot where a heated debate over their future began.

"We are supposed to have a meeting today to discuss what to do and how to organise ourselves since the foreign companies are coming in to take away our business," said Emad Amir, one of the young zabbaleen of Giza. "Sadly three of the active zabbaleen who were planning for the conference were arrested for no specific reason. We have been asked by the authorities to disperse." Amir was referring to community activists arrested on Monday morning.

Nevertheless, the zabbaleen, in coordination with the Justice Centre, a Cairo-based human-rights NGO, were soon out on the streets shouting, "Solidarity is our only solution. Solidarity is the guarantee to keep our jobs."

The Giza Cleanliness and Beautification Authority (GCBA) had been blocking and delaying the issuance of new licenses for the Giza zabbaleen. This became the straw that broke the camel's back and made the zabbaleen realise that they were being pushed out of the system. Without permits -- which are renewed by the GCBA every year -- they cannot work thus paving the way for the foreign companies to come in and take over the job.

Hitherto, residents in Egyptian cities have depended on the zabbaleen to collect their garbage via a door-to-door service in return for an average of LE2 to LE10 per month, depending on the income level of the district.

According to the new privatisation deals, however, residents will be expected to pay a monthly bill for garbage collection that will accompany their electricity bill. Based on an elaborate index determined by the type of property, a certain percentage of each electricity bill is added as a garbage collection fee. As the consumption of electricity increases, so does the garbage collection fee.

At the launch of the project in Alexandria in October 2001, many people criticised the high bills they were being forced to pay for the new service. The same issue is expected to be raised in Cairo and Giza after implementation.

As many of the zabbaleen point out, theirs is a nasty job, but a job for the whole family nonetheless. The father and the sons collect the garbage from the houses and their wives and younger children sort it out in their homes. Sorted garbage is then sold. The labour-intensive nature of the job rules out family planning; the more children they have, the more help they get in the garbage business. School is rarely an option. As one resident put it, "we do not even apply to schools for our kids because we need them to help in the business."

Wadie Iskander is one of the few who does send his kids to school -- a private school at that. "They still work with me, but I pay almost LE2,000 per year to give them an education. How am I expected to pay that sum of money now that these firms are expected to take over our business," he said.

The zabbaleen were offered jobs by these foreign companies. However, they found that the employment terms offered were all but impossible to meet for the bulk of the community. "They want men who are exempt from military service and under 40 years old. That means those who are very young and those over 40 are excluded. And what about the women," said Ayman Mou'awad, a garbage collector.

Surrounded by policemen, the zabbaleen stood beside their zarayeb for over four hours advocating their demands. "We just want to continue with our jobs. We do not want anything to change," said Mohamed Mahmoud, a local garbage collector. "At first they asked us to upgrade and buy new covered cars instead of the [donkey-pulled] carts. Many of us did, and are still paying the instalments," he added.

While the young and less privileged zabbaleen were demonstrating, an old man attired in an elegant and expensive galabiya, smoking brand-name cigarettes, stood on the sidelines watching. The man was "me'allem" Isra'el Ayad, one of the Giza's garbage collection tycoons. Pointing him out, one of the young zabbaleen declared that Ayad could not care less about them. "He has already stashed millions in his bank accounts. If it is in his interest to cooperate with the foreign companies, he will certainly do that and we would be left out," claimed the young man.

Ayad did not seem happy with the demonstration. He is a big boss within the zabbaleen community and, as such, is expected to solve their problems. But even the big bosses, the me'allemeen of the zabbaleen, who are in control of garbage collection across Cairo and Giza, were unable to provide the less fortunate with advance information.

Instead, Ayad blamed the crowd for their inability to develop and provide themselves with better opportunities. He was worried, however, that his own men would turn on him. "Officials from the governorate are to blame for what is happening now too."

The younger zabbaleen , however, feel that the big bosses should and can help. "If he wanted to establish a private company for garbage collection, he could," said Said Mohamed, a young garbage collector. The feelings at both ends of the garbage collector social spectrum are far from harmonious. "Unlike what many people might think, we are poor. It is true that the big bosses are very rich but we are below the poverty line," said Agaby. "If we were rich would I leave my son wearing these ragged clothes," he added.

And so the garbage collectors have attempted to take their fate into their own hands. "We tried going to the GCBA on our own but the officials refused to meet us," Mohamed said. "We simply don't know what to do anymore."

Cairo's zabbaleen, on the other hand, have been better informed of the privatisation plan at hand. For over seven months, they have been involved in a series of discussions, meetings and negotiations with governorate officials and representatives of the company that is supposed to take over. Cairo has a larger community of garbage collectors, estimated at 30,000 in the low-income district of Mansheyet Nasser and the Muqattam Hills area alone. Furthermore, the zabbaleen community in Cairo is more coherent; they are concentrated in one or two areas in contrast to their colleagues in Giza who are dispersed over six disjointed zarayeb.

"The discussions are ongoing but the big bosses of the zabbaleen do not want to give up their profits. So we have not reached a solution yet," Ahmed Nouh, assistant project manager of AMA, the Italian company contracted to clean up Western Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We will not find better experienced people than the zabbaleen to work with. But we need to find a good compromise," he added. AMA is expected to start its services from mid-March.

Last week, three days before garbage collection was due to be handed to EuropaEnser, the foreign private company contracted to start collection from the western district of Cairo, hundreds of zabbaleen from Al-Muqattam, realising that none of their concerns had been addressed, flew into a rage. They met in a conference with the officials from the governorate but have yet to reach a solution. EuropaEnser, however, did not start on the date agreed upon with the governorate.

According to 2001 statistics provided by the governorate, the capital houses 14 million people who produce more than 8,000 tonnes of garbage daily. That is in addition to 2,000 tonnes of construction and building refuse. According to the governorate, the Cairo Cleanliness and Beautification Authority (CCBA) collects 50 per cent of the aforementioned waste, the zabbaleen and small private companies in high- income districts collect another 25 per cent and the remaining 25 per cent have been left uncollected.

In Alexandria, where the French company Onyx took over, the problems of a much smaller community of zabbaleen was solved by "a gentleman's agreement" between the community and Onyx. The company allows them to take the items they want from the garbage containers, so long as they keep the place clean.

In Cairo, the chairman of the board of the CCBA, Mohamed Laban, announced at a recent press conference devoted to the privatisation of garbage collection that the zabbaleen would be allowed to visit the landfills and take away the items they want from the garbage in their carts. But while that might have been a satisfactory solution for Alexandria's zabbaleen, those in Cairo and Giza have not accepted it.

At the conference in Muqattam, the zabbaleen expressed their disappointment and some suggested they should go on strike to prove that they cannot easily be discarded by the new system. "Ninety per cent of our work here in Muqattam depends on the recycling of the garbage, so we simply could not give up the garbage, not even part of it, because our lives depend on it," said Eid Ibrahim, one of Muqattam's zabbaleen.

Adel Habil, a Muqattam-based garbage collector, told the Weekly that even if he was willing to consider employment with the new company, the terms offered made the idea impossible. "LE500 is not acceptable. I make around LE1,000 per month from garbage collection. It is the bare minimum. I support a big family and have already been forced to take my children out of school," he said. Habil added that the company, "wants employees who are free from diseases. Try finding any one of us who lives and deals with garbage everyday and who is disease-free".

At a service centre in Muqattam, where women receive health awareness lectures, the hot topic of conversation has become the future after privatisation. They have been urging each other to tell their kids not to leave their work under any conditions. "We can't have them take our jobs. We have to persist and be strong," said Fawziya Noshy, a mother of eight who works in garbage collection.

MP for the district of Toukh in the Greater Cairo Governorate of Qalyoubiya and businessman, Mohamed Farid Hassenein, has submitted an interpellation (a question that must be answered) in the People's Assembly, seeking assurances regarding the rights of the zabbaleen. Surrounded by the zabbaleen, this Monday, Hassenein promised he would first ensure that no one else was arrested. He also promised the release of the three zabbaleen arrested on Monday morning. "I could even establish an Egyptian garbage collection company that would push the foreign companies out of Egypt," he told his constituency.

"It is our country and we should be able to clean it up," Hassenein told the Weekly. But, the contracts have already been signed and talk of a national firm at this point sounds little more than rhetoric.

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