TThey are everywhere and yet they are almost invisible, living below the social radar as they roam the city pushing grocery carts full of metal tubes, old microwaves and empty beer cans.
the scrap dealers They are the itinerant scrap collectors of Barcelona, and there are thousands of them. Most are undocumented immigrants, so there is no official census, but Federico Demaria, a social scientist at the University of Barcelona who is conducting a study on informal waste pickers in Catalonia, believes there are between 50,000 and 100,000 in the region. About half are from sub-Saharan Africa; the rest are from Eastern Europe, other parts of Africa and Spain.
They may be under the radar, but they play a vital role in recycling, collecting roughly 100,000 tonnes of metal a year in Catalonia alone, in a business that the Spanish recycling federation estimates is worth € 10 billion (£ 8.6 billion ) annually.
“What I have collected today is only worth about € 3,” Suleiman says, lounging on a bench on the way to the junkyard. A bed frame and bits of twisted metal are crammed into her shopping cart. “Steel is worth less than 10 cents a kilo.”
Suleiman arrived from Guinea in 2005 and, although he has his residency papers, he says that it is impossible to find a suitable job. “Next month I’m going to Lleida [a city 100 miles west of Barcelona] to dig potatoes and pick cherries, ”he says.
Víctor Mitjans, recycling expert employed by the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, says: “Informal collectors are exploited by scrap metal dealers who, knowing that these people are ‘illegal’, offer a price and it is a matter of taking it or leaving it” .
Waste belongs to the city, so collecting it is technically theft. “The city is not going to prosecute these people and most are willing to turn a blind eye to their activities,” he says.
While the city pays private companies to collect and separate waste, informal collectors are not rewarded for their work beyond what they receive for scrap. Metal recycling is not part of the formal collection system for glass, paper, and plastic.
“If you acknowledge their environmental service, they should be compensated for it,” says Demaria. The waste collection contracts in the city of Barcelona amount to 2,300 million euros. The problem is that migrants are caught in a trap 22 due to Spanish immigration law: they cannot get a job because they are undocumented but they cannot obtain legal status without a job.
To obtain legal residence, you have to live in the country for three years, prove that you have had a fixed address for at least one year, show that you are learning the language and have a work contract for a minimum of one year. For many, it is impossible to meet these conditions, and even if they obtain legal status, they have to register as self-employed and pay a legal monthly “fee” of € 300, regardless of income, for those who do not earn enough. to pay.
The quota of self-employed workers forces tens of thousands of people in the lowest paid jobs, such as domestic workers and caregivers, to enter the informal market. They are among those most affected by the pandemic, because they have no way to claim compensation from the state for lost income.
“What can you do? Steal? Sell drugs?” asks Ababacar Thiakh Sylla, who came to Spain from Senegal 23 years ago. “If you don’t want to do that, the only option is to collect scrap metal or be a street vendor. It is social exclusion, neither more nor less ”.
Sylla arrived from Dakar, Senegal, with a university degree not recognized in Spain, so she spent the next six years working illegally as a street vendor before obtaining a history degree at the University of Barcelona. Now she works for a city-funded cooperative that helps undocumented workers find work.
A 2013 report by the International Labor Office estimated that only about a fifth of the 24 million people worldwide who work in waste management are in formal employment. The rest are the 19 million troops of the world army of informal waste pickers.
“These people provide this recycling service and invest their entire lives in it because it is the only way they can survive,” says Lucía Fernández, who helped establish the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, speaking from her office in Montevideo, Uruguay.
“The scrap dealers Barcelona are at the base of a pyramid, with multinational capital at the top, ”he says, something that has been the case for a long time in the global south, but is a new phenomenon in the north.
Demaria agrees. “It has a lot to do with inequality and we are seeing a convergence between the north and the south because now in the global north we have many people living in extreme poverty,” he says.
Fernández says that while governments spend millions on sophisticated waste collection services, in some parts of Brazil recyclers collect up to 60% of what is collected for recycling.
“We need to see the work of these people not as a problem but as a solution, but to do that we need to change the system,” says Fernández.
More and more Africans are undertaking the dangerous journey to Spain, where a harsh and precarious existence awaits them. “When people who have worked here, even as waiters, return to Senegal, what people see is someone who has succeeded in their life in paradise,” says Mamadou Saliou Diallo. “They have their lives ordered. People sell their houses so that their children can cross the sea by canoe ”.
Diallo arrived 11 years ago, alone, at the age of 16 and determined to be a professional footballer. He played for Sant Andreu when he was in the second division, but was retired when he assumed a new direction.
In addition to working for a bicycle rental company, he has created the NGO Diandé Africa, which helps finance the education of 500 children in his hometown of Ziguinchor, southern Senegal, while running a nursery and jam-making project in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood.
For Karim, who in 2006 was among 30 people who left home in a small boat for a new life, Senegal had little to offer. After 15 days at sea, they reached the Canary Islands, the longest and most dangerous route for African migrants to Europe.
In a week last October, about 500 migrants drowned while attempting this crossing. However, Karim says he was never afraid. “Yes, it is dangerous, but if things are going badly in your country and your family is suffering, if your life is already a living death, at least you tried. You may drown, but you can be proud you tried. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism