28 October 2009

Should the Government Be Required to Give Landfill Workers Safety Equipment?

At our exchange with landfill community members, I was surprised to learn that the problem with the village wasn’t that they desired different jobs, but that they wanted their job of scavenging in Khon Kaen city’s landfill to be safer. They wanted the government to simply provide them with boots, face masks and gloves. While this seemed an easy solution, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Is that really the government’s responsibility?”

Don’t get me wrong- the scavengers are doing a huge service to the city by picking out plastic bottles, aluminum cans, coffee cups and a great deal of other trash. In fact, they have saved the landfill eight years of staying open by recycling all of this waste that other people have decided to simply throw out. However, this job is their choice. They enjoy their job because they can work whenever they have the need or the desire. They don’t have to meet certain quotas or take orders from a boss. They have freedom. Also, when asked if they would try to find another kind of job when the landfill does eventually close, they replied that they will follow the trash wherever it goes. Because this is their choice to do this work, how can you make the argument that the government is responsible for providing them safety equipment? If I decided to go off on the street and pick up litter, would it be up to the government to provide me with a trash spear?

While it is the government’s job to keep their people safe, it is also impossible for the government to cater to every small group. If every small group did come to the government with their demands, there is no way that they all could be met. If the government did accept this kind of job and legitimize their work by giving them safety equipment, would the scavengers then have to be required to pick out a certain amount of trash to be able to keep these benefits? As of now, if the government fulfilled their demands, who is to say that the scavengers would continue working as hard and saving as much time for the landfill? If the scavengers accepted the equipment, it seems that they would have some sort of implied responsibility, and would thus lose some of the complete freedom that they have now.

So is the real responsibility of the government to provide safety equipment for a group who chooses to do this or is the responsibility of the government to provide more avenues for unskilled workers? It is a very gray area. While the workers say that they would like to continue doing what they are doing, is this because that is the only thing they know, or because they really enjoy the benefits of freedom that much? It is hard to imagine that anyone would prefer to work in a landfill, digging through other people’s trash, no matter what the advantages are. Nearly all of the villagers who live in the community at present came to the landfill following their parents, and grew up doing this job as a child. In an area where opportunities were scarce, they created a job sector that didn’t exist before. This having been said, if new, safer jobs were created, would these people take them? And if they didn’t, would this be because they didn’t want to give up the advantages that they have now or because they would have to change their skill set to something they have never experienced before?

So this simple question is really not so simple. Ideally, yes, the government would provide these workers who are doing this great service a few things to make their lives a little easier and a lot safer. However, where is the line between government involvement and autonomy? Can you ask for something from the government without giving up a little of your own personal freedom? Would this just be an easy fix for a very complex issue? Would it be legitimizing work that is so ridiculously unsafe even with the simple request of boots, gloves and a face mask? Would this lead to government responsibility if a catastrophe did happen? There are so many questions with no right answers. The only thing for certain is that everything has a cost.

Jenny McGinnis
Western Michigan University


Maina Handmaker said...

This is a very blurry line – you’re right – between acknowledging the scavengers as city workers by providing them safety equipment and changing the dynamic of their job entirely by giving them that recognition. When I left the landfill, I was sure the first fix had to be sending them gloves, boots, and masks, to at least help them do their job more safely while I struggled with these bigger questions. My host father was rooting through the trash without a mask to filter the fumes. He didn’t have gloves on when he opened trash bags to make sure nothing was missed. His two daughters played on the landfill in flip-flops, and many of the scavengers were working without boots on. The incinerator that burns Khon Kaen’s medical waste was blindly built by the Prince of Denmark in Kambon Noi to eliminate a hazard, but it breaks down so often that the syringes and tubes and vials from the hospitals, diseases and all, have ended up in a dangerous pile. Water oozes out of the landfill and is only cleaned by the sun, in giant stagnant treatment ponds, before it runs into the Nam Pong River, which directly feeds Khon Kaen’s tap water. Even as I was challenging my own environmental consciousness, wondering whether recycling still meant saving things from the landfill, or sending things to the landfill pre-sorted to make these people’s lives easier, I never questioned that it was the city’s responsibility to legitimize the work of the scavengers by providing them with safety equipment. They aren’t asking for employment, they are looking to be acknowledged for what they do, and given basic safety gear to protect themselves while doing it. You’ve made me think, though, would this take away the freedom of their work that makes them want to keep doing it? Or do they only want to do it because they know no other work? I remember the villagers speaking so loyally to their job, having followed their parents to the landfill as children – are gloves, boots, and masks our responsibility? Or is spreading more opportunities to this ignored part of Khon Kaen? But if the scavengers brought their hard work ethic and resourcefulness to another job, what would happen to Khon Kaen’s trash? The scavengers are slowing the build up of trash by 39-47%; if they left, it wouldn’t take the city long to be desperate for its landfill control crew back – then would they need to treat it as a real job?

Kate Voss said...

Jenny, I believe that you bring up a very important point about the consequences of providing safety equipment for the landfill community. Although the action of providing the safety gear would acknowledge the work of the scavengers, I do not believe that it would legitimize the acceptance of their working conditions. In the interim between the present and when the people of these communities can find jobs which are less risky and more acceptable, their health and safety cannot be sacrificed. It may take time, especially under these economic conditions, for the government and the community to find other career options, but the health risks associated with the work of the landfill workers is pressing and immediate. Even if provided safety gear and, therefore, acknowledging the work of the scavengers, I think that the community and government will still attempt to find alternative careers. During our exchange with the community, it was clear that the people of the landfill envision a better life for their children, but that process takes time. While pressing toward the future, the immediate needs of the present must still be resolved.

Nicole I said...

I spent a lot of time thinking about this myself while I was there. You brought up some points that I hadn’t considered myself, and while I was undecided on the issue, I think your post has convinced me that it is not the responsibility of the government.
I think, if the requests of the landfill workers were granted, it would provide a slippery slope for the government. We could even take it far enough to argue that nearly every service done is done for the government considering the fact that the government is supposed to work for the greater whole, and every role each individual plays in the system contributes to that.
While it would not change my opinion, I am curious to know how the government in the United States would approach an issue like this, especially considering the difference in sanitation and cleanliness levels that we seem to observe compared to Thailand. Would this cultural difference affect the government response to such a request? Would this even be a debate in the United States, or would the response be clear cut?
I think it would be a “nice thing” for the government to do, but I do not think there is an obligation.

Dalya said...

You bring up many valid and interesting points about government involvement and personal choice all of which I agree with. However, with regards to the Kham Bon Noi landfill community I feel that the least the government could do would be to provide these community members with the safety equipment that they requested. As land owners, it should be the government’s responsibility to ensure the health and physical safety of their people. Especially since the villagers were not involved with the creation of the incinerator which is now causing breathing problems and an increased rate of asthma in the children. While they are not employed by the government, they are also no longer just random people who one day decided to pick up litter. This is their home. This is their life. There are many other people who scavenge at the landfill who come from other places. While ideally the government could provide safety equipment to everyone with no strings attached I agree problems could arise regarding the questions you previously addressed. This being said, I believe the government should at least provide Kham Bon Noi with safety equipment until this landfill closes which is estimated to be soon anyways.

Katie Steinhardt said...

During our visit to the landfill, I too felt the exact same way. I had spent an exhausting day with my meh and paw sorting through the mountains of garbage, and it is obvious that the scavengers who work there all need protective gear: better boots, gloves, and masks. However, when Paw Kam said that they would like all of that supplies to be provided to them by the government, I couldn’t help but ask if it was really there responsibility to do that…If perhaps the landfill scavengers were asking for too much. I immediately bad for even questioning their request from the government since they are providing a social service and aren’t asking for much, and yet I still wonder if anyone, including the government, has the responsibility of giving these people anything since they aren’t civil servants. While I’m still conflicted on the issue, I don’t think that the government should feel the need to give the scavengers at the landfill any work gear. They don’t work for the government, and although their job is not the safest, they choose to live there. If anything, I think that the scavengers have more of a right to ask for the removal of the incinerator of to force the Office of Health to perform a water test. It is sad that the thing that they want most, safety gear, is the one thing that I believe they have the smallest chance of actually getting from the government.

Brodie said...

I agree with this blog post entirely and the ideas posed were similar to the things I was thinking about during the Urban Unit. I thought it would be great if the scavengers could have equipment but I don’t see how that is the government’s responsibility. The scavengers are working in the informal sector of the economy and if they were to receive funding for equipment, then a precedent would be set for other groups in the Khon Kaen province to demand funding from the government. The scavengers told us they wanted to live there and they would follow the trash where ever it went in Khon Kaen. If this is their choice for a career and lifestyle, then they should allocate more of their monthly income to buying their own safety equipment. And I do think if the government provided equipment to the scavengers, then it would legitimize their extremely unsafe work. If a catastrophe did happen, the responsibility could fall to the government.

--Brodie Henry
Champlain College

Liz said...

I think that health care could be one framework for thinking about the responsibility of the safety equipment.

The Thai government provides universal health care, and thus provides for the health of the scavengers at the landfill. Why not consider providing safety equipment to the workers at Kom Bohn Noi a health care precaution that prevents illnesses the government will have to pay for in the future (probably at a higher cost than of a pair of rubber boots)?

Prostitutes choose their informal sector job, yet with the threat of the AIDS epidemic, the Thai government rushed to give out condoms--safety equipment. In my opinion, there is no important difference between this case and the situation of the landfill workers.

As challenging as it is, we need to start addressing problems at their roots. It makes sense, and it’s a lot more effective.

Kati Cahn said...

I am so relieved to read this post because it expresses the same sentiment I was feeling while living at the landfill. While sympathetic to the needs of the workers there, I can see why their demands for government-provided safety equipment have thus far been unsuccessful. If the government did give them this equipment, I do think that it would signify that the government was recognizing, and therefore inherently taking some responsibility for, the work of the scavengers. Yet, if something catastrophic was to happen today at the landfill, a landfill without safety equipment from the government, couldn’t a case be made to hold the government responsible, at least to some extent? While they have not provided the families that live at the landfill with safety equipment, they are aware of their existence. These families have purchased their land and receive power and water from the government. While the government does not support their work, they certainly are not condemning it. Essentially, what implications exist merely because of the awareness of the government about the lives of these scavengers?

Anonymous said...

Ummm…are you kidding me? These people dig through trash for a living! Your government just spent billions of US tax dollars bailing out Wall Street and you are suggesting that offering gloves and safety garments is a "slippery slope" ?! Geez...please take a moment to put this all in perspective.

Does getting them another job really solve the problem? Whether they “like” working in the landfill or do “not like” working at the landfill may be beside the point. It might be difficult for someone of their means to ever think of getting another job. It’s not like they can just polish up their resume, jump into their Honda Civic, and drop off a few applications. At the end of the day that landfill represents those peoples’ livelihood. It is common for governments to give tax breaks and negotiate cushy contracts with big business. Why should dealing with the poor be any different?

To respond to some of the questions in the posts:
Can you ask for something from the government without giving up a little of your own personal freedom?
Yes. Why not? Again…perspective. We’re talking gloves and safety material here.

Would this just be an easy fix for a very complex issue?
Yes….and until we solve this very complex issue those people deserve to be treated with dignity.

Don’t get me wrong- the scavengers are doing a huge service to the city by picking out plastic bottles, aluminum cans, coffee cups and a great deal of other trash. In fact, they have saved the landfill eight years of staying open by recycling all of this waste that other people have decided to simply throw out.
First off: I don’t know about you, but throwing away my garbage is not a simple decision, it is practically second nature. Do you know very many people who store their life’s garbage in their home? We don’t have much of a choice other than throwing our crap away.
Second: Uh huh. It’s not like the city had some other plan for dealing with the trash. Why not get the Thai national government to compensate them for doing such an amazing public service.

How can you make the argument that the government is responsible for providing them safety equipment?
Shouldn’t the government be looking out for the wellbeing of all of its citizens? How can you make the argument that the government is not responsible for providing them safety equipment? What kind of world do you want to live in?

Would it be legitimizing work that is so ridiculously unsafe even with the simple request of boots, gloves and a face mask?
Maybe, however, remember that this is those people’s livelihood, and the factors that contributed to the landfills existence aren’t going away anytime soon. Perhaps it does legitimize their work, but maybe this is a good thing for that community. It might give them bargaining leverage to get more from the government.

Would this lead to government responsibility if a catastrophe did happen?
Maybe, but more importantly, what’s so bad about that? AND…wouldn’t the government be in an even worse position if they did nothing? That would be a nice news headline.

I think Liz’s post makes the most sense to me. I feel that some of the other posts seem to have forgotten that we are talking about real people - who live in real poverty - and yet they are determined to maintain their dignity and the livelihood they have eked out. However, I wonder if we must even come to the point where we have to rationalize the work people do as paying off in the long run for society at large. Can we not legitimately take a stand and say that what these people do is valid and true and worthy of recognition and support?

For whatever reasons…development happened. These people have found themselves in a particular situation in the world and have attempted to make the most out of it. They have community, they feel free, and they are generous beyond belief. Let’s meet them where they are at and negotiate from there.