Clasificadores of Montevideo: cleaning up a way of life?


Clasificadores trundle round Montevideo collecting and sorting the rubbish that others throw away.  But now the city authorities want to clean up their act.  Ben Weisz reports.

Ben Weisz: Friday 26th July, 2013, Montevideo, Uruguay. Dozens of horse-drawn rubbish carts have blocked the Avenida 18 de Julio, one of the city centre’s main roads. They’ve pulled up to protest outside Montevideo’s Palacio Municipal, headquarters to the city council or Intendencia.

The carts belonged to members of UCRUS – the union of clasificadores of solid urban waste. Clasificadores do their rounds of the city, some in horse-drawn carts, others pulling hand-carts or even shopping trolleys, rummaging through the large rubbish containers stationed on Montevideo’s streets. They salvage what they can, sort it, and sell it on.

A survey carried out by the Intendencia in May 2013 counted 3188  clasificadores in the city, though as you will hear, UCRUS puts the figure much, much higher. The Union was protesting recent changes proposed by the Intendencia to ban the clasificadores’ horse-drawn carts, or ‘carros’ from three city centre districts, and to limit the collection and sorting of waste in other districts to those “duly authorised” by the Intendencia. Clasificadores see this as a threat to their livelihood – the three central districts are seen to be the areas whose rubbish skips contain the richest pickings, while there are fears that only large multinationals with fleets of bin lorries will be “duly authorised”.

The clasificadores want to protect their way of life from its perceived threats. Not only the new rules proposed by the Intendencia, but toughening economic climates . This programme investigates the question of whether it is sustainable for Uruguay to protect the clasificadores lifestyle in the 21st century. There are fears that child labour is rife among families of clasificadores. The Intendencia worries that the presence of clasificadores is holding back both the city’s infrastructure and its ability to organise a modern system of waste recycling.

But are these fears justified? And what will the human cost be if the perceived threats to the clasificadores’ livelihoods become reality?

As with most industries in Uruguay, the Clasificadores have their own Union. UCRUS- the Union of Clasificadores of Solid Urban Waste. Travelling north, away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, you arrive in the impoverished Villa Espanola district. Occupying a small hut on the Camino Corrales, UCRUS hold their meetings. In a store cupboard, filled with books of Marxist-Leninist theory and propaganda posters,

I spoke with Walter Rodriguez, UCRUS’s president. I asked him why the Clasificadores felt threatened by the intendencia proposals.

Walter Rodriguez: The state has pursued a series of measures which are set to harm clasificadores. The big producers of waste, the supermarkets, the factories, all of these generate great riches in terms of materials to recycle. Nowadays they are punished by the City Council if they give their waste to the rubbish carts of the clasificadores. The first time, they’re hit with a fine – I don’t remember exactly how much – the second time, a bigger fine, and the third time they can even come and close down the business, the factory, whatever it might be. So we understand that this is another little move in a game which has been going on for a while now – they want us to disappear from the streets.

BW:  Walter suggested that the Intendencia’s plans to ‘duly licence’ refuse collection was a sly means of privatisation by the back door, eliminating clasificadores in favour of large multinationals.

WR: What they really want is privatisation – that multinationals deal with all the rubbish. Nowadays, hanging over us is the idea…no, they’re already bringing forward plans to build incinerators to generate electricity, enormous recycling plants which earn millions of dollars.

BW:   Walter was highly concerned for the human cost of thousands of clasificadores losing their livelihoods.

WR:  In the face of the impotency of not having the resources to provide for your basic needs and those of your family, the clasificadores are going to have to turn to other things. And I’ll wager that these people are going to push clasificadores onto crack, onto thieving, and the women into prostitution…

BW:  Walter was also concerned that these threats would affect far more people than the Intendencia were supposing. He questioned the Intendencia’s recent survey, claiming there were far more clasificadores than the 3188 it suggested.

WR: There may only be barely seven thousand people who have a clasificador’s permit. That said, behind every clasificador, who in many cases is the head of the household, are three or four people who are committed to the same kind of work, and as such we understand there to be between 21000 and 25000 people who undertake this sort of work.

BW: As well as the threat from the Intendencia, I asked Walter whether the Intendencia was the only threat to the clasificadores. His response suggested that widespread social prejudice was just as worrisome for this marginalised community.

WR: There are certain sections of society which understand the activity, they value it, they recognise its worth. There are others who don’t. I know the sections right at the top have never had to go through a situation of need and have never had to think about the benefits of the fact that clasificadores exist. And, well, people discriminate, insulting us, that is to say, they’ll be driving in their cars and suddenly try to cause an accident, for the fun of it. We’ve got to be able to deal with a variety of situations, and learn not to respond to their aggression because they insult us. They call us “pikey”, “hobo”, “thief”, “dirty” – a whole load of things.

BW: Walter’s allegations didn’t end there. He went on to suggest that the widely-held belief that clasificador work fuels child labour was a part of this prejudice.

WR: This is part of the stigma they’ve tried to create for clasificadores. In all areas of society, there are those who fail in their parental duty to send their children to school. It happens in upper, middle and lower classes – it might be that in this sector, that is, among poorer people, that it happens a little more often. But the economic benefit of not sending your children to school isn’t very much at all.

BW:  Some of Walter’s allegations were surprising. Widespread class-based prejudice in a society frequently held up as one of the most egalitarian in the region, if not the world. The idea that others spread myths about child labour in order to smear the clasificadores. Closer investigation was needed. I spent an afternoon with Caio as he did his rounds of the Villa Espanola neighbourhood. As we trotted along, I got to know a little more about the day job.

Caio:  The clasificador’s typical day begins by saddling up. Cos there’s no timetable we’ve got people who go out…some go out in the afternoon, others at night and some who go out very early in the morning. Cos in reality it’s the kind of work where everyone has their own circuit and works a different time and place. Everyone has a place where they know that at such-and-such a time, there’ll be good stuff. There are places where if you get there late for whatever reason, the bin lorry from the council will have already been and emptied the container. But it’s in the rich areas, they’re the areas which continue to feed us because there’s a lot of consumption and they throw a lot away. They’re throwing stuff away all the time. When I arrive at a skip the first thing I look for is the things that will pay most – white nylon, plastic bottles, jars and of course, metal. In reality yeah there are a lot of clasificadores, or that is there are areas where there are richer pickings, where there’s the best stuff for market, where there’s more raw materials, and everyone tries to go to these places to find a good haul – if you do, happy days.

BW: Trousers, a designer handbag, sheet plastic, carrier bags – a promising haul, I think. I asked Caio whether he was proud of his work. His response revealed something really important for thinking about the role of clasificadores in Uruguayan society. For the clasificadores themselves, this is more than a job. This is a way of life, part of the national culture.

Caio: Yes I’m proud because I know I’m the first environmental agent. I rescue things which others throw away, raw materials which have never been recovered. For many people it’s a way of life and it’s really important to have the freedom of being your own boss. We’re not used to working under a boss and for that reason it’s hard to put us in other kinds of work. It’s a way of life that goes back to the most distant times of our culture –and ‘culture’ is an important word here, because we’ve got a history in Uruguay of working and living with our horses.

BW:  It turned out there was something of a class system among the clasificadores themselves – some were better off than others. Caio, with his horse and cart, was near the top of the pile. We passed others en-route carrying what they could in hand-carts or even on their backs. Caio explained the financial hazards of having a horse and why some people couldn’t afford them.

Caio: What can turn out really expensive is when there’s an accident and you’ve got to pay a vet or buy some medicine. Then it’s expensive. Despite having an ID card saying I’m poor, it cost me three and a half thousand pesos just for antibiotics. And that’s why we say its so abusive when they come and take our horses – our property – away, the animal rights activists or whatever, and for whatever reason they take your horse away.

BW:  Caio was referring to a growing phenomenon in Uruguay, where animal rights campaigners, in conjunction with statutory authorities, requisition horses from clasificadores, while on the job. This can be humiliating for clasificadores, and incapacitates them from working as they used to. However, there is a growing sense of unease in Uruguay over the horses’ health. Newspapers carry front page photographs of horses collapsed under their carts, while every month there are horror stories from traffic accidents. What about the other forms of discrimination Walter had mentioned?

Caio: There’s a hell of a lot of discrimination. It’s that everyone has prejudice, because we’re a minority group, and like all minority groups we’re discriminated against awfully. We have to take care to keep it clean around the skips. There are people who are looking to worsen our relationship with the city council. We’ve found people throwing all the rubbish out of the container and then asking us ‘why did you do this?’ And then they have prejudice for those of us who drive carts because they blame us for this!

BW: Despite this apparent lack of fair play, it would be wrong to say that everybody in Montevideo bears the clasificadores ill-will. While we were driving along, one lady’s actions were the epitome of generosity. In Scotland Street, a lady has just given us some free cake – it’s very nice of her. Furthermore, Caio had tales to share of clasificadores getting lucky.

Caio:  We have a friend who was riding his cart through the city centre, where there was a famous antique coin salesman who died. His widow called my friend over shouting “Hey! I’ve got something for your cart!” and she brought out four large crates – the kind you see vegetables sold in – four large crates full of coins

BW: Yet what of the idea that people were inventing myths about child labour among clasificadores? Caio didn’t castigate those teenage boys. Indeed, he greeted them warmly. I had to ask him what he thought about child labour among clasificadores.

Caio: Even if there are cases where children work with their parents as it’s a family business at times, nowadays the City Council has legislated so that you can’t have children driving. A horse and cart is a vehicle, and you can’t have a vehicle being driven by someone underage.

chld lab picBut of course, there are those who go out after school because clasificadores don’t have fixed hours and they go out when they want to. The family of clasificadores is realising that children in the streets isn’t ideal, that they should have their chance to study, that they should have their chance at a childhood, which is another very important thing.


BW: Regardless of what the official Union position is, however, child labour among clasificadores does exist, and it is a problem. Indeed, within five minutes of stepping out of the taxi after returning from my interview with Caio, I came across a boy no more than 12 years old, driving a cart unsupervised through the Old Town, a tourist trap right next to the Presidential Offices themselves. According to a report published in 2009 by CETI – the National Committee for the Eradication of Child Labour – there are around 2000 children in Uruguay who undertake work as clasificadores. I spoke to Juan Pablo Martinez, from CETI, about what his organisation had learned about how this kind of work could harm children.

Juan Pablo Martinez:   Yes, children whose families – whose fathers in particular, or older brothers – work collecting or sorting rubbish have a high probability of encountering child labour. For two main reasons. First, as with any more or less precarious family set-up, all the family members have to do their bit, sometimes the youngest members. This much isn’t exclusive to the clasificadores. Sometimes, if fathers and mothers go out in the cart they bring their smaller children with them because they don’t have anywhere to leave them – they don’t want them to be by themselves in the neighbourhood, in the house. And this is how they start taking part in this task, in this kind of work. What’s more, a lot of the time these children in fact end up taking part, and this is an organised way in which they contribute to the family work.

BW:  So various factors, from a lack of childcare facilities to a culture of taking your kids for a ride on the cart, exposes children to this kind of work. But how are they endangered when they find themselves undertaking it?

JPM:   The clasificador’s work is very dangerous. In the first place because there are immediate risks from the rubbish itself. In the waste which these children are classifying they find anything from hypodermic syringes to medical waste which can cause health problems. The rubbish has infection risks – of viruses, of bacteria. After that, they tend to develop breathing difficulties, and tend to have skin conditions – infections, allergies which result from contact with the rubbish. And what’s more, they have physical problems which are produced by carrying very heavy things – something they would have to do.

BW: As well as immediate health risks, children who work as clasificadores damage their education, even when they do turn up to school.

Juan Pablo Martinez:   The problem is that even if many children in clasificador families don’t strictly spend too much time on the job or combining it with their studies, the reality is that the conditions in which these children live, as a result of rubbish in the house, normally affects the atmosphere in which they develop in the first place. It first affects their physical health, then their capacity to find a place, an environment in which they can create a space to do their schoolwork. Children who live among clasificadores continue to take on jobs which compete for time with their studies. The reality is that for these children, sustaining an educational process for 12 years – which is the minimum for primary and secondary – is extremely difficult.

BW:  CETI is a policy-based organisation, trying to influence the problem through lobbying. But what is being done on the ground to help children who end up working with clasificadores? Emilio Bonetti works in the child labour department at Gurises Unidos, a Montevideo-based NGO which helps children in poverty. He told me why Gurises Unidos put so much emphasis on helping the children of clasificadores, and how they went about doing it.

Emilio Bonetti:   It’s important because we consider the work of clasificadores to be one of the worst forms of child labour, with respect to sanitation, as well as the educational question. The difficulties which we often encounter are related to tasks which we see have been passed down from generation to generation, from those who haven’t had other options, other opportunities to do other things, and this makes it really difficult to realise our work. And on the other hand there’s a certain culture with respect to work, where the children think that work is a good thing for them. Clearly, this means we have to start to have a more active role to try and alter these situations.

BW:  How does Gurises Unidos propose to make school a more positive experience? To find out, I came here, to ‘School 119’, a primary school in the poor Piedras Blancas district. It’s enormous – with 1300 pupils. Lia Fernandez explained to me that while many of the children we were about to meet were involved in work as clasificadores, they were hard to idenfity.

Lia Fernandez:  Cases of child labour are fairly invisible, even more so in the case of the clasificadores. In the first place, child labour is a naturalised part of family life, part of the everyday experience. In second place, because child labour generates a lot of social stigma. Parents and children won’t admit to working in this way because they know society will condemn them. So a lot of the time the families, they hide it so as not to feel judged for the fact that their children take part.

BW:  How could teachers spot a child involved in clasificador work, then?

Lia Fernandez:  The child turns up tired, many times they can fall asleep in the classroom. Also, hygiene, health issues, parasitosis, respiratory infections, cuts in their hands, because when they go out to the skips they often cut themselves. These are physical issues which are really obvious, those and the tiredness, that they fall asleep – they’re all indicators that help the teacher identify that the child probably undertakes work related to collecting and sorting rubbish.

BW:  What kinds of activities were Gurises Unidos running in the school to make it more attractive to children who might be involved in child labour?

Lia Fernandez:  To tell the truth, one of the central issues which we’ve seen in schools is the playground, which had been littered with violent situations. So we’re working with the older children to help everybody get along at school One of the activities we’re going to see is one of the classes where they’re going to be making toys out of wood to use in the playground. The aim is to turn breaktime into a place where everyone gets along, something all the children can enjoy.

BW: While observing the group at work, I chatted to the pupils. They were generally happy that Gurises Unidos was in the school, and told me how the school’s atmosphere had improved through the three years of its involvement. The walls, once stark and concrete, had been painted according to the children’s own designs. Violence in the playground had, they told me, reduced significantly.

Suddenly, I was tapped on the shoulder and ushered out of the classroom. The volunteers wanted me to meet a little girl, no more than 7 or 8 years old. Bright as a button and perhaps the most fluent, assured interviewee I spoke to for this documentary, she nevertheless had experience of work as a clasificador- evident from her knowledge of what the work entailed.

GIRL: You have to sort the bottles with their colours – you put the little green ones in a different bag. And then you put the cardboard in a different bag, and it all gets sold to different companies. All the family is included in this work.  Before, when I was little, my brother went out on the cart too and brought things home as well. When I was little I went out too. It was good because I looked forward to seeing the places where my dad went to, and spending time with dad. But sometimes I got burnt when hot water spilled out of his thermos flask!

BW:  Yet this little girl was one of Gurises Unidos’ success stories. Despite her experience of working with her dad, she had achieved top marks across the board. Would she break the cycle, or would she end up working as a clasificador all the same? Asking her what she wanted to do when she grew up was no longer a harmless, fun question to pose to a child, but an important litmus test for whether Gurises Unidos’ intervention was helping break the cycle of child labour among clasificadores. What was her answer?

Girl:  Various things. I’d like to be a football player, because I play football. And I’d like to be a police officer, too.

BW: All of these schemes seek to end child labour among clasificadores. The main question, of course, is whether the clasificador way of life is sustainable. Whether it is sustainable depends, in part, on whether it can get by without child labour. If these schemes are ultimately successful, will clasificadores be able to cope? Here’s Juan Pablo Martinez: again, from CETI:

Juan Pablo Martinez:     I believe that in Uruguay, children don’t represent a substantial support in economic terms for their families. For that reason it’s completely possible that the families of clasificadores, as part of a process of restructuring of their sector, can get by without child labour, without a doubt.

BW:  So child labour, though terrible and rife among clasificadores, is not a necessary part of that work. It would be possible to preserve the clasificadores’ way of life without preserving child labour. Nevertheless, it isn’t the only gripe people have with the clasificadores.

As well as child labour, there are fears that having clasificadores in Montevideo worsens the city’s transport system, and even makes it hard to recycle waste on a citywide level. Nestor Campal is in charge of the Intendencia’s Department of Mobility which manages Montevideo’s transport infrastructure. He has experience in the Sanitation Department as well, and so he’s dealt with clasificadores in various guises over the years. He is an outspoken critic, telling the El Pais newspaper in July that he wants to eliminate their carts from Montevideo’s streets.

Back where I started, at the Intendencia building in Montevideo, to find out whether his views were as strong as they seemed in the papers. Was the process of collecting and sorting rubbish using horses and carts really something that needed to be eliminated?

Nestor Campal: This process helps to profoundly deform society, and helps to enslave an individual, because of course none of the individual clasificadores do this to get rich – they do it to survive. This work can seem like a great freedom, but in reality it’s a constant state of slavery, because this individual, when they stop working, doesn’t have the support of society to survive, because they don’t get to retire, because there’s no system to defend them from the legal point of view and so on. We need to change the current situation, where a clasificador works in the street, to prepare him for a different set-up, with uniform, protective gloves, suitable footwear, working fixed, regular hours etcetera.

BW:  Nestor referred to the Intendencia’s plans to build gigantic waste sorting plants. The clasificadores I’d spoken to earlier hated the very idea of them – suggesting that working fixed hours, under a manager, without their horses, was something that would rob them of their way of life. What did Nestor think about whether it was important to preserve that way of life?

NC:   It’s not only not important to preserve this way of life, it’s actually important to profoundly alter it.

BW: Why was it so important for Nestor to profoundly alter the status quo? First under the microscope was the clasificadores’ claim that their work is environmentally sound. Nestor disagreed with that interpretation.

NC:  The main environmental problem which Montevideo has nowadays, the principal problem is associated with the ‘rechazo’ which the clasificadores produce – in other words, the items they take home but decide to throw away after sorting them. That is to say, if I have waste in a skip and a lorry comes on its rounds to dispose of it adequately, and we compare that with the situation where rubbish is rejected and thrown away behind the clasificadores’ houses, into the Millete stream, into any of the water courses, or even into the sanitation system…to keep this system working, and to prevent the clasificadores themselves from drowning in waste, society has to intervene – paying ten times as much to retrieve waste from water sources as it would have paid to retrieve them from a container.

BW:  In his new job in Transport, Nestor also saw difficulties with the clasificadores’ carts.

NC: The movement of horses and carts, which don’t have adequate lights, which can react unpredictably to a siren or a car horn, and which travel long distances, because the clasificadores live on the outskirts, come to the rich areas in the city centre and return to the outskirts…this all generates a  situation for transport which cannot be maintained.

BW: Nestor’s message was clear and simple. Yes, the Intendencia’s proposals were designed to end the clasificadores’ work in its current form. On that much, the Intendencia and UCRUS were agreed. No, the Intendencia didn’t think that kind of work was an important part of Uruguayan culture – indeed, it considered the clasificador’s lifestyle to be downright dangerous, holding the country back educationally, environmentally, and in terms of transport infrastructure. As far as the Intendencia was concerned, it would do all it could to help clasificadores find work in its new plants, but it would not permit them to continue as they are.

What’s more, the Intendencia seems to hold all of the cards. While the clasificadores can protest, the Intendencia can ban them from operating, it can prevent large companies from supplying them with waste, and can, in conjunction with the police, requisition their horses.

Here in Montevideo, the clasificadores’ way of life is certainly under threat. While their work needn’t involve child labour (though too often does), fears remain about the clasificadores’ environmental credentials, animal rights and their effect on the city’s infrastructure. Something has to give. The self-employed clasificador does not have a place in the Intendencia’s vision for Montevideo’s future. The safety-trained plant-worker is a far cry from the gaucho-inspired dream of the UCRUS clasificadores.

As July’s protests showed, however, the clasificadores won’t go without a fight. One thing’s for sure – with Intendencia and UCRUS standing in perfect opposition, this is a battle far from over.

This programme was first aired on Cambridge University radio – CamFM.

Tags: , , ,