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Scavenging to ruin [Daily Star Special Report]

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The Daily Star

Published on September 3, 2010

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Md Mahamudul Haque

One day a dog bit his leg and took away a bit of his flesh while both were fighting for the same scrap of food from a dumpsite at one stage of collecting recyclable materials by the latter.

"After taking food, I have to drink dirty water from water bodies as no one allows me to drink from shops or hotels seeing my dirty clothes and dirty work," said Bhandari, a 50-year-old tokai (informal waste collector), at Agargaon in the city.

Even, he cannot take bath after collecting such materials due to lack of alternative dress. He always suffers from various diseases due to such unhygienic practices and sustains injuries while collecting waste with bare legs and hands.

Not only Bhandari but about 120,000 people, including tokais, who work in recycling trade chain of Dhaka city, also have to face such inhuman conditions along with tremendous health and safety risks.

In the informal sector, tokais scavenge in dustbins, dumpsites and or roads for recyclable materials with their bare hands and sometimes with the help of merely a stick.

They mainly collect plastic made materials, broken glasses, papers and wooden materials to sell in vangari (scrap) shops.

Tokais are in the most vulnerable condition in Dhaka city in terms of health, hygiene and safety at workplaces as well as their living, says a recent study of Safety and Rights Society, an NGO working for safety and rights of workers.

They always suffer from various diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, skin diseases, back pain, gastric, ulcer, headache, cold, fever and jaundice, says the study titled “A Study on Occupational Health and Safety Situation of Tokais in Dhaka City."

They do not know how to maintain health and safety and do not use any safety equipment during garbage collection, says the study.

It says most of the tokais are illiterate and tender aged and live in rented slums or open spaces in the city.

They mainly sustain injuries to hands and legs by handling broken glasses or other hard objects and to shoulders by carrying sacks of garbage on it, says the study.

Sumon, 9, at a dumpsite near Glass Factory Mor of Mohammadpur in the city said, “I have never gone to school as I have been doing this (waste collection) work for two years. I earn about Tk 80 working ten hours a day by selling the materials I collect.”

Replying to a query, Sumon said he suffered from fever, cold and jaundice several times last year due to such working conditions.

Shahana, 25, said, “I suffered from skin diseases, back pain, dysentery, jaundice and other diseases in last one year.”

"I fell victim to such diseases for working in such hazardous conditions," she added.

The study of Safety and Rights says most of the tokais believe that they become ill because of handling dirty and toxic substances in unhygienic environments.

Another study titled "Plastic Waste Recycling: Impact on Health" recently conducted by Waste Concern Consultants, an NGO, says among all actors in the plastic recycling sector, tokais are the most vulnerable group, considering the income and average age level as well as exposure to hazards.

Almost 70 percent of them suffer from three or more diseases of various kinds per year, it adds.

More than 80 percent cases they come to this profession as no other option is open for them to earn while only around 4 percent of them think it is a good source of earning, the study adds.

Almost all of them have no registrations and only 49 percent of them get some health services for work related health problems from government, NGOs or other organisations, it says.

The survey says only 48 percent of the tokais use sticks during garbage collection without any safety equipment like, boots, gloves or masks.

The government and NGOs should take initiatives for providing tokais with protective equipment like masks, gloves, aprons, boots as well as training to protect them from injuries or diseases, said Sekender Ali Mina, programme director of Safety and Rights.

Maqsood Sinha, executive director of Waste Concern, said the 2nd draft for National 3R strategy (reducing waste, reusing and recycling resources) for waste management has been prepared jointly by his NGO and the environment department giving priority to health and safety for the informal waste collectors, including tokais.