Dumpster Diving and Internal Income

dumpster-diving-e1423706610249-620x289New Orleans   When I’m in India the hawkers, street sellers, and even the recyclers always, and I mean always, ask me what it is like for people who are in their profession in the United States.  When I answer the hawkers for example, and say that compared to India, we have almost none, they look at me incredulously, smile, and shake their heads, clearly not really knowing if I’m giving them the truth or pulling their legs.

The more than 100,000 recyclers in Mumbai or Delhi or other large cities who collect and then sell to brokers based on their specialties of copper or paper or whatever would be similarly confused.   They assume that the richer the turf, the higher the yield, and just maybe the recyclers are right, and we should look at this differently even as a social enterprise.

I read a piece in the February issue of Wired about a fellow named Matt Malone in Austin, Texas who for the last nine years has wildly supplemented his day job by dumpster diving, largely in big retail establishments.  In two nights of digging through trash with the reporter, he found stuff he could sell for $5000.  In India this would have supported a dozen recyclers in our Dharavi Project in Mumbai for a year!  In the US it might support a lot of organizing, if done on a systematic basis.

Malone had a day job and got into dumpster diving the same way that hundreds or maybe thousands of organizers have before him.  He was assigned by his techie outfit the task of coming up with a plan to test a client’s security.  He made the natural assumption when starting with nothing that he might learn a lot about them from their garbage. Organizers, especially union organizers, have dumpster dived for decades for old payroll printouts which give a sense of the size of the staffing, wages, job classifications, and other information.   Malone’s investment is minimal.  He has a flashlight with a magnetic clamp so he can affix it to the side of a dumpster.  Other than that, a pair gloves and clothes that can handle rough wear, he’s pretty much set.

Here’s the kicker though.  He thinks if he worked at dumpster diving 240 days per year he could make $600,000 annually.  That’s the kind of figure that gets your attention.  My recycling members in India would be ashamed to have me as an organizer, if I didn’t look into this dirty gold mine more closely.

Is dumpster diving illegal?  A 1988 Supreme Court ruling in California v. Greenwood held that “when a person throws something out in a public space, they have no reasonable expectation of privacy.” Greenlight to go!   The only yellow warning light has to do with trespass. If the dumpster is on private property or marked “no trespassing,” then you could have a problem.  According to Wired, Malone operates with what he calls the “move along rule:  if a store employee, security guard, or police tells you to ‘move along,” you should….”  In other words, like in all of organizing, as I’ve always said, “there’s no substitute for good judgement.”

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be work.  I’m also not saying that there aren’t costs involved, just as I know from watching our Indian recyclers work.  It meant a lot when we got a pickup in Mumbai.  You need an area to sort.  You have to make the sale and do so at a fair price.

It’s hard to find money for building peoples’ organizations.  As the saying goes, “money doesn’t grow on trees.”  But, seriously, there may be a gold in the garbage that we are well qualified to mine!

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Chambers Brothers – Time Has Come Today (live)

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Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!

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