BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — A crowd of people gathers by an obelisk, all wearing blue uniforms with a green stripe. They are cartoneros, or recyclers.
Soon, Jacquelina Flores arrives and makes her way through the sea of blue uniforms. She is followed by a long line of women, each wearing a T-shirt that identifies her as an “environmental promoter.”
As Flores arrives at the obelisk, she greets everyone in blue uniforms by name, kissing and hugging each one.
Then, the march begins.
Flores advances confidently through the streets toward the Ministerio de Trabajo, Empleo y Seguridad Social, the labor and social security ministry. She is leading the mass of recyclers as part of a protest to bring the recyclers into the formal minimum wage system.
Flores has a long history of working on the streets of Buenos Aires, first as a vendor and then as a recycler. She says recycling came into her life after a difficult time.
“There was always a need for money, and there was none around,” she says of the days before she became a recycler.
In Buenos Aires, recyclers collect and resell more than 600 tons of recyclable materials every day. For their work, they earn mixed wages. Members of a cooperative earn a fixed income of 4,000 Argentine pesos ($226) each month. On top of that base wage, Flores says, cooperative members earn an additional 400 pesos ($23) per day based on the amount of recyclables they collect. But the state does not regulate the prices paid for collected materials. Most are paid 1 peso (.06 pesos) per kilo of paper or cardboard collected, Flores says.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Over the years has become a leader in the Movimiento de Trabajadores Excluidos, MTE, an organization that fights for the dignity and integration of workers excluded from the formal work system in Argentina. In 2010, she founded a cooperative of recyclers that later worked with the government to enable some female recyclers to become environmental promoters. These women are now paid a base salary by the Buenos Aires city government. Flores recently began formally using her first name Jacquelina during her unsuccessful candidacy for the city legislature. She has also used Jacqueline.
Today, 80 women work as environmental promoters rather than recyclers. Their job is to go door to door teaching residents how to separate waste and raising awareness about the importance of recycling.
Flores is also active in promoting educational programs and laws that make corporations pay part of the cost of recycling the waste they produce.
The idea for women recyclers to become environmental promoters arose from the common health problems female recyclers, including Flores, were facing.
“I have recurring tendinitis and problems with my spine at the neck,” she says, adding that recyclers who are part of a cooperative have health insurance. “We all have ruined knees and poor joints for not knowing how to properly lift the carts.”
Flores was a pioneer in bringing attention to women’s problems within the recycling movement, says Marcelo Villareal, a representative of the labor cooperative El Amanecer de los Cartoneros and MTE.
“[Jacquelina] was able to see the problems of our fellow female workers,” Villareal says. “She took initiative for the environmental promoters project and she started talking with [government] representatives to try to get them to listen to us.”
The creation of an alternative position, transforming women from recyclers into promoters, is changing the lives of many women, she says.
“Now our women are rediscovering those female roles of mother and daughter that they had left behind because they were in a car for 16 hours,” Flores says.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Laura Barboza, an environmental promoter, confirms that with her own experience.
“It’s a major lifestyle change,” Barboza says. “I used to leave home at 2 p.m. and return at 3 a.m. Now I go in at 8 a.m. and by 3 or 4 p.m. I’m already home.”
And the promoters’ work also benefits their fellow male workers at the time of collection.
“Thanks to the promoters, people started to believe that there was a recycling system they didn’t know about,” Villareal says. “Some people view us from a distance, with fear, so then the recycler has difficulty getting access to homes, to bags. The promoters help narrow that distance.”
In mid-June, the MTE inaugurated the Bachillerato Popular Cartonero, an educational center where recyclers can complete their studies.
“I have three years of elementary school,” Villareal says. “I’d like to finish my studies and learn about cooperatives, get informed and be able to teach other fellow workers about their rights.”
Flores is now busy promoting a packaging law that seeks to make corporations in Argentina pay for waste they produce.
Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the pay recyclers receive per kilo of cardboard collected. Global Press Journal regrets the error.