Working like a dog


I caught the eye of a man in the crowd the other day. He was carrying a pole across his shoulders, a tin hanging from one end, a set of bathroom scales from the other. He glanced at the sky as if to judge how fast he should walk in light of the approaching storm, then I caught his eye. He had a striking face: high cheekbones, slightly hooked nose, square jaw, eyes set deep within pockets of creased skin, like black buttons on the back of an old leather couch. I smiled. He looked back at me as if to say, ‘Yes, you can afford to smile.’

The man earns his income by setting up his bathroom scales in a public place—the entrance to a market, the footpath of a busy shopping strip—and for a small fee, tells people their weight. Bathroom scales, a household item in Australia, are an unaffordable luxury for most Cambodians, and the man is one of many who put the emphasis on the ‘small’ in ‘small business’ in a city where earning $0.75/day puts you above the national poverty line.*

But the man with the scales has it easy compared with what some people in this country do for a living. Take the garbage collectors. Some work on the foul smelling trucks that collect household waste several times a week. Some push carts like oversized wheelbarrows by hand around Phnom Penh’s neighbourhoods, squeezing toy trumpets to bring people out with their recyclable materials—paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, aluminum—often with their babies riding in the carts amongst the rubbish. Some young children fossick through piles of rubbish on the streets for recyclables, too, dragging around sacks bigger than they are. Many sniff glue or take amphetamines to enable them to work harder, for longer, with less fear.

But the dubious award for the worst job in town must go to the 600 or 700 people, including children, who scavenge the garbage dump at Stung Meanchey for a living. Stung Meanchey, ‘River of Hope’, is a stinking, smoldering shit-heap covering 6.8 hectares, infested with flies and rats and containing dangerously high levels of cancer-causing dioxine and arsenic.

The scavengers eek out a living by extracting recyclable materials from the mountains of putrid, shit-smeared, piss-soaked, blood-stained garbage produced by a city of two million people. They start work when the first garbage trucks arrive at 5am and continue until 6pm. Some pay bribes to the truck drivers for exclusive rights to pick over the load.

In addition to suffering from nausea, headaches, chronic diarrhoea, skin infections and depression, the scavengers risk injury and illness from medical waste dumped at the site. According to Kuo Sineth, a 21-year-old gleaner interviewed by the Phnom Penh Post in July, ‘Bags of blood, human parts such as hands, legs, lungs, livers, whole babies and heads are found in that medical waste. It is disgusting but it is a means to life,’ he said. ‘From each truckload of medical waste, I can collect plastics, syringes, serum bags…worth about 30,000 riels to 40,000 riels’ ($7.50-$10).

That’s about what I made every 20 minutes in my last office job in Melbourne.

In the same article, Chen Vuthy, 15, one of seven children, says he doesn’t worry about needle-stick injuries, so much as the prospect of not being able to collect recyclable materials. The 5,000 riel ($1.25) he makes on an average day goes towards buying rice for his family.

A couple of NGOs work with the communities of Stung Meanchey to improve their livelihoods, providing health care, food and education for the children, compensating families for the loss of labour so the kids can attend classes. One pub in Phnom Penh even offers tourists the ‘unforgettable experience’ of doling out food to the families at Stung Meanchey, which probably undermines the work of the NGOs.

The Cambodian government intends to close down Stung Meanchey at the end of this year and open a new, sealed tip on the road to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. And as of this month, the Cambodian Red Cross is to start a new medical waste disposal service using a special incinerator installed at the new dumpsite.

According to a Phnom Penh Post article of 22 August 2008, the people living off Stung Meanchey will be evicted and relocated to Kandal Province, where they will be sold plots of land at a cut-price rate.

In a sad indictment of what they see as their limited job prospects, many are reluctant to leave.

I’ve thought a lot about the garbage collectors of Phnom Penh over the eight months we’ve lived here. But I am dedicating this week’s post to them specifically because I’m currently in the process of applying for jobs both in Cambodia and Australia. And should I be tempted to bitch about how tough things are, this post is intended to serve as a reminder to pull my head in.

For reasons neither clear nor just, I will never, ever have it that tough.

Click here for a wonderful post on the people of Stung Meanchey by a braver man than I am.

* The 2007 national poverty line in Cambodia was set between $0.50 and $0.75 a day to account for differences in the cost of living between urban and rural areas. An estimated 31-33% of Cambodians live below the national poverty line. Using the international poverty line of $1.25 determined by the World Bank, 42% of Cambodians, or about six million people, live in extreme poverty.


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5 Responses to “Working like a dog”

  1. khim Says:

    Dear Angela,

    yes, we have lots to be grateful for….

    good luck with your job search


  2. sooz Says:

    Thanks, I really enjoyed this post and the link was great! Man. No whining from me…

  3. Author talk in Phnom Penh « Angela Savage Says:

    […] faces in the small crowd. On the walls of the room around us was a stunning photo essay of the community at Stung Meanchey garbage dump, upstairs an exhibition of portraits of Cambodian […]

  4. Ali R Says:

    I need to find out more about the eviction of the SMC dumpsite. When are they going to start moving people out?

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