Eradicating Child Labor in Informal Waste Collection and Improving Adult Working Conditions

Research carried out by IOM and UNICEF has revealed the appalling working conditions of the cartoneros, children and adults who search in garbage dumps for recyclable materials as a means to survive.

In the city of Buenos Aires alone, the IOM/UNICEF research team counted 8,762 people gathering recyclable materials from garbage bags on the city streets, and from garbage dumps and landfills. Nearly half of the informal recyclers or cartoneros in Buenos Aires are minors; 39% are families who migrated from rural areas. The families earn an average of US$21 per week.

The research confirms that while the children and their families suffer, other people benefit from their work. For example, the cities pays less for the disposal and treatment of waste in landfills; large companies profit by buying these materials to recycle and resell at much higher prices; and fewer natural resources are extracted.

At nightfall, 17-year-old Roxana, her mother, and her six-year-old nephew travel by foot and train from the Cárcova slum where they live to the city of Buenos Aires to fill their cart with recyclable materials. They walk the streets plunging their hands into plastic bags searching for paper, plastic or cardboard they can resell. At the end of each night’s disgusting work, they lug the heavy cart up and down the steep train station ramps to return home. That same night and the next morning, they separate their findings before selling them to a warehouse located in their slum.

Roxana´s family migrated to Buenos Aires Province from a rural area in Corrientes Province where they farmed a small plot of land. She was 13 when her single mother started collecting recyclables after losing her job. At that time, many families in Roxana´s neighborhood were adopting this survival strategy due to high unemployment and economic recession. Roxana eventually quit school and also went to work helping her mother.

Their neighborhood is close to one of the countries largest landfills, and many people, especially youth, sneak into the landfill to search for both recyclables and foodstuffs. This is even more dangerous because the materials are highly toxic, the ground is unstable, and the air is contaminated. Entering the landfills has resulted in serious injuries and illnesses to children and adults.

In October 2004, the IOM and UNICEF offices in Buenos Aires teamed up to conduct research on the perilous living and working conditions of children, youth, and adults whose principal survival strategy is informal waste collection. The research was undertaken in diverse localities throughout the country in order to achieve a countrywide perspective.

The quantitative component of the research measured the number of individuals involved in informal recycling in each locality, and also surveyed hundreds of families to obtain general information on this activity and the risks involved. The qualitative component of the research consisted of in-depth interviews with families of informal recyclers like Roxana’s and key informants that work with children and youth. It also included research on existing initiatives linked to the prevention of this type of child labor and on efforts by the Government, NGOs and/or informal recyclers themselves to try and formalize and organize this activity.

The final report of the research, published by IOM and UNICEF, explains the risks these children face, such as health problems; low education levels and a high incidence of school dropout; troubled family life; precarious housing conditions; and neighborhood insecurity.

IOM and UNICEF are working together to inform the government, groups of informal recyclers, local companies, NGOs, and the public at large about their findings. IOM’s goal is to encourage all of these actors to work together so that children like Roxana and her nephew can stop working, stay in school, and have access to other services that will keep them safe while their parents work. IOM is also advocating for improved working conditions for adults so that work with recyclable products will become safe and dignified.

IOM and UNICEF are designing a new project that includes micro credit schemes to improve working conditions for the adults while providing alternatives for their children.

Jessica Koehs
IOM Buenos Aires