They are a workforce of untold people whose labor goes unseen and unnoticed, even unappreciated.
There is this variety of little trade and industry which derive their chief means of life from the wants and luxuries of La Trinidad, Benguet to Baguio City. And the people doing it are unobtrusive persons given scant attention by anyone.
In the dead of night or when morning has not yet broken night’s darkness, one, attentive enough, can spot these shadowy figures ambling along the side of the streets of La Trinidad or Baguio, each lugging a burlap sack on their shoulders.
You see an individual silently moving about, at hours of the night, silent and active, as they make a beeline to where piles of garbage are. And even in the pit of blackness, they can spot even the smallest thing that can be recycled or re-sold – if for mere centavos – as they sift through trash.
Any recycled thing is a collection of numerous pieces with multiple past by the lives of La Trinidad and Baguio residents who have thrown away those things in their garbage bins or garbage plastic bags and termed “basura.”
If these residents are shedding off something of their lives into garbage, it is, however, a consolation for these shadowy figures of the darkness.
They are the garbage pickers or in Tagalog, “mangangalakal.” Sometimes they are called the rag pickers or waste pickers. In rougher Ilocano terms, they are pointed to as “agbas-basura.”
But these entrepreneurs who sift through the daily mountains of garbage generated by La Trinidad and Baguio folks for scraps which could be profitably harvested.
And before morning breaks light, just around 5:15 – 5: 20 A.M., these wraithlike figures slip away from these garbage dumps to vanish into oblivion, just as they mysteriously appeared during nights.
There is no official record of potentially recyclable materials in La Trinidad and Baguio which can be reused, but the search is on by these pickers for waste with end uses which would make their recovery worthwhile.
Daily Laborer is indebted to these people who want to remain anonymous but assented to his request of going with them as “novice” as they visited garbage dumps many times of nights in La Trinidad and Baguio. They consented when Daily Laborer explained he wanted to make a news feature about them.
To make the scene more real, Daily Laborer consented to using ragged clothes and toting with him a sack to be filled with garbage collectibles.
Copper, aluminum, tin, iron, plastics, bottles, clean cardboards/boxes are obvious choices of the rag pickers. And for these entrepreneurs, the effort to rid barangays of these wastes and then recycle them into something saleable, promises returns, even if in measly pesos.
La Trinidad generates more than 50 tons of assorted garbage daily while Baguio spawns more than 400 tons of garbage daily. A major component of these garbage is non-biodegradable and the high cost of where to legally dump these garbage continues to be a yearly headache and expense of Local Government Units.
Daily Laborer had no occasion to draw upon imagination for these “mangangalakal” and several of them just hinted they are renting somewhere or staying or living with relatives.
But Daily Laborer would like to especially mention Gloria and Lia (surnames not mentioned) for having faith with Daily Laborer in going around the garbage dumps of La Trinidad and Baguio during those nights when almost all residents have been snoring.
During those nights, Gloria and Tia tossed Daily Laborer cardboard boxes, plastic or bottles to clean in exhausted moments and that each box, plastic or bottle that fell at Daily Laborer’s feet became a reminder of so many “mangangalakals” in our midst contributing to help clean the environment.
A garbage dumps, as you know too well, is dirty. But when it rains, as often is the case in La Trinidad and Baguio, it turns garbage into sludge, seeping into street embankments and producing foul smell.
For Gloria, Tia and the rest of the “mangangalakal,” they said they got used to the smell. One night, during a garbage sortie, Gloria cinching tight the cord tightly of a sack full of bottles as the bottles crackled under pressure, sighed tiredly and said, “This is my last time on a garbage dump. When I leave, I am not coming back.”
Tia retorted, “You are just tired.” But Gloria insisted, “No, I am serious. I am not coming back.”
But Gloria did return. One evening, she texted Daily Laborer if he wanted to go with her and they made their way to a garbage dump in darkness somewhere at barangay Bayan Park.
Why do “mangangalakals” return to the garbage dump? In both casual conversations, Daily Laborer asked many questions: whether the work is dangerous, whether as many women collect as men, what the most surprising or valuable object a mangangalakal ever found. But he never asked why waste pickers return to the garbage dump.
For the answer is assumed. That is, they do so out of necessity, as a means of survival. For Gloria, who insisted that she was finished collecting garbage for good, returned to a garbage dump because she had no other option. Her story ends before it even begins.
The tendency to frame work like that of “mangangalakal” in terms or necessity stems in part from its classification as “informal,” coined in the 1970’s to capture the income-generating activities of the wage-less work in the informal economy, understood as a recourse of urban poor left out or left behind by global capitalism.
From this perspective, Gloria, Tia and the rest of mangangalakals in the Philippines, sifting through refuse, is one income-generating activity among a multitude performed by those who cannot find wage employment.
If a garbage dump appears an end zone, in a double sense, being a burial ground for unwanted things and an end of the line for urban poor, Gloria and Tia and other interviewed take us to a new perspective. They say work on a garbage dump is not an end “but an experience of continual return.”
There were times, they said, when “mangangalakals” in La Trinidad and Baguio disappeared for long periods, only to return to the garbage dump. As Daily Laborer traces the departure and returns of the “mangangalakals” to the garbage dump, he asks how wage-less work coheres within the trajectory of a life as lived.
These trajectories take their own paths. But as they do so, they weave together life and labor, value and waste, and La Trinidad and Baguio and its margins in the ways that this column seeks to understand.
This subject presented by Daily Laborer is a critique of scarcity as a persistent paradigm for understanding lives lived in unstable conditions. As unemployed workers who sift through garbage, “mangangalakals” seem to exemplify in extreme form nowadays notion of disposable life.
Yet to see the work of waste pickers in the Philippines or worldwide through metaphors of garbage waste forecloses important questions. If waste pickers are redundant to capital accumulation, then it becomes impossible to ask how the materials they collect are tied into an estimated 200-billion-dollar global recycling industry?
Or, even to ask Gloria, Tia and the rest of the La Trinidad and Baguio waste pickers, what else, beyond mere subsistence, is produced by their hard labor – what social relations, values and their lifeworld’s.
Daily Laborer, who experimented living the life of a waste picker for nights has the object of keeping in mind the march of progress of La Trinidad and Baguio. But in the march of progress, so, too, does the march of garbage.
As one local song, titled “Montanosa” depicted in one of its phrases, “Nu addu ti tattao, mas karkaru ditoy Baguio, ngem awan kanu serbin ti Baguio, nu awan ti basurero . . .” The song, which many locals know and sing, may as well apply to the case of La Trinidad.
In guiding Daily Laborer in what follows by conceptualizing the act of collecting recyclables not as a survival strategy, Gloria, Tia and the waste pickers of La Trinidad and Baguio argue it constitutes a form of living, as in their idiom, “to make a living.”
Garbage recycling is thus understood as, at once, both a livelihood and their way of life.
What have we learned from this social experiment? The aim of Daily Laborer would have been attained if a single heart out there reading this column may be touched and turned from the manifest errors that we regularly commit when we throw our garbage: that of not properly and consistently segregating our garbage.
We just throw our refuse in one pile and that’s it. Why we do so stems from pure laziness. It won’t hurt anyone to segregate his/her own garbage. But then, sadly we make indolence rule over us.
If the perusal of this column will influence a single e-La Trinidad or taga-Baguio to labor more zealously and more fervently in segregating his/her garbage at home before bringing it out for the garbage collectors to collect, then the hands of Gloria, Tia and other waste pickers in our communities would not be put forth in vain.
If it shall cause the erring to mend their ways, some small share of common benefit shall have been effected by the narratives of the La Trinidad and Baguio waste pickers. It is their humble hope that good may result from their story for the improvement of communities.
For even in this enlightened day when our country has the “Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000,” or Republic Act 9003, we are still struggling to implement it. And many complaints for non-compliance.
While at the trash dumps, eerie moving shadows go silently reclaiming the discarded.