Living on the margins: A community battles Covid-19 impact

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Over 2,000 Edjai work in Phnom Penh and thousands more pick through waste across Cambodia, contributing to the collection and recycling of nearly eight per cent of total municipal solid waste, estimated at over 300,000 tonnes per year. Chanraksmey Korm

‘I can no longer afford to buy food easily after the Covid-19 outbreak,’ says 30-year-old Phorn Sambath who has been working as an Edjai, for the last 15 years in Phnom Penh.

Edjai is the term that refers workers in the informal waste sector including waste pickers. It derives from the Vietnamese word for waste Ve Chai, as Cambodia relies on Vietnam for processing its recyclable material. The recycling business remains undeveloped in Cambodia and the Edjai community plays a major, if unappreciated, role in this recycling economy.

Over 2,000 Edjai work in Phnom Penh and thousands more pick through waste across Cambodia, contributing to the collection and recycling of nearly eight per cent of total municipal solid waste, estimated at over 300,000 tonnes per year. They work day and night, scouring streets and landfills to purchase, locate and collect recyclable materials such as plastic, paper, glass, aluminum and other metals. They then carry these materials using hand carts or by motorcycles and sell them to intermediaries at recycling depots. Depot managers in turn sell these on, chiefly to overseas recycling businesses.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of depots for over three months from April to June. With nowhere to sell their products, the Edjai were left without an income.

“I worry and I am very scared about the risks of a Covid-19 infection. What should I do if I get infected and infect my family and relatives?” said Math Et, a 61-year-old Edjai working in Phnom Penh.

The Edjai community is highly susceptible to Covid-19 risks. They meticulously comb through rubbish without protective gear, risking infection from used masks or other contaminated materials.

Even during normal times, life is hard for this community. Many also work at night to avoid harassment as they collect recyclables from streets, restaurants, and stores. As most residents and businesses do not properly separate the waste they generate, Edjai must open and search through refuse bags themselves. Without any reflective clothing, Edjai communities face a higher risk of traffic accidents while working on the streets.

“I am afraid to die being hit by a car,” says Moeun Aann,36, while explaining how common traffic accidents are in Edjai communities.

In July, most recycling depots reopened, but the price for recyclable waste such as plastic bottles has dropped more than 50 per cent. Compared to their average income from April to September last year, the income for many Edjai has dropped by up to 80 per cent over the same period this year.

Struggling to survive, many have been forced to eat less. Some have sought assistance from NGOs and the government for immediate relief of food and cash.

However, not all have access to such assistance. Most informal waste pickers remain left out of formal systems such as a family registry, and so are unable to access social protection schemes such as IDPoor. Many Edjai live in informal settlements, live in rented homes, and lack official documentation. Additionally, Edjai are not recognised as an official workforce and so their access to recyclable waste remains precarious.

Without any access to other income, many were forced to take loans to meet basic needs, often from informal lenders charging high interest rates, just to meet basic needs. This often traps them in a downward spiral of debt.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to provide food such as rice, noodles, and other staple foods for Edjai communities, especially those who are hardest hit and have fallen into poverty. Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as reusable masks and gloves are also needed to provide protection, from potential Covid-19 risks. Reflective jackets can also increase visibility to prevent traffic accidents during both day and night. In cooperation with the government and NGOs, UNDP plans to provide 600 sets of food and PPE for 600 Edjai families in Phnom Penh.

Yet, in order to ensure long-term wellbeing, several additional interventions are required.

One is to assist the Edjai in registering for the IDPoor system at the local municipal office. Extra support is needed to overcome the lack of formal status to receive an equity card.

Another is to integrate the Edjai community into a circular economy, while officially recognising their role in waste collection and recycling. The government is developing a national circular economy strategy. One of the key steps is to use this highly effective Edjai network and recycling depots and integrate them into a more formal system of recycling. Other countries such as the Philippines, India, and Indonesia have successfully integrated informal waste pickers into a formal recycling economy.

Covid-19 has affected millions across the planet. As we move towards recovery and rebuild, we must ensure that no one is left behind. That is especially true of the Edjai community who provide Cambodia with invaluable recycling services.

Nick Beresford is UNDP Cambodia Resident Representative and Michael Wasserman is Circular Economy consultant.