Below the poverty line: living on a garbage dump
How UNICEF Philippines is helping children living and working on a garbage dump in Manila
Michelle, 16, lives in Payatas, alongside one of Metro Manila’s largest garbage dumps. Her mother, Esther, used to work selling street food by the roadside but has been unemployed since Tropical Storm Ondoy flooded their family home and destroyed her livelihood. Esther can’t afford to send Michelle or her siblings to school because of the cost of books, uniforms and transport. “It’s impossible to afford,” she says. “I have no work and no savings.”
In Payatas, a community of 200,000 people live alongside, and in many cases work on top of, the dump site. The main road through the slum settlement is lined with 24-hour ‘junk shops’ that buy plastic, metal, paper and glass by the kilo, for sale to massive recycling plants in southern China. The junk shops take all the profit and none of the risk, typically turning over millions of pesos a year, while paying the dump workers around 50 pesos a day.
Adults and children risk their lives every day scavenging the dump for the quantities of recyclable materials needed to make a living. The work is extremely dangerous. They are at risk of diseases such as respiratory infections, pneumonia, diarrhoea and tuberculosis. The dump itself is unstable and parts of it can collapse in heavy rain, burying workers and their homes beneath the garbage.
There are also dangers from the vehicles and machinery. Helen Estrada is Payatas Coordinator at UNICEF’s partner organisation Kokkyo Naki Kodomotachi. “The sister of one of our students died recently after being run over by a garbage truck,” she says. “The driver didn’t see her because she was so small. She was only nine years old.”
In the last year, things have got even worse for these children and their families. The global economic crisis has caused many of the Chinese recycling plants to close, reducing demand for the scrap materials. The junk shops have responded by slashing their prices by up to half. This means the children have to spend twice as long on the dump site and carry twice as much garbage up the hill to the junk shops, in order to earn the same meagre amount.
“Tin cans have gone down from 25 peso to 15 peso per kilo, plastic cups from 12 pesos to five pesos and clear plastic from two pesos to just one peso,” Helen says.
The living conditions are scarcely better than the working environment. Slum houses, often made of materials scavenged from the dump site, are crammed together right up to its edge. The garbage finds its way into the town, where it lines the streets and clogs the waterways. The settlement does have electricity but no running water or proper drainage. The smell of the garbage lingers over everything, getting into clothes and hair, so that even those children who are lucky enough to go to school face discrimination from their peers.
“Hard up families live in Payatas as an option to survive,” Jess Far, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Philippines, says. “These are the poorest of the poor. They come to Manila from the provinces looking for a better life but they find that life is more difficult here than they expected. A lot of children in Payatas end up out of school because of poverty.”
UNICEF is supporting Kokkyo Naki Kodomotachi (KnK), a local NGO that provides alternative learning sessions for children whose parents can’t afford to send them to school. UNICEF provides training and materials for the teachers and school bags and T-shirts for the students.
KnK has two classrooms: one by the old dump site and one by the new, larger site. “This is partly to make it easier for the children to come to class from work but also because there are gang wars between rival factions working the two dump sites,” KnK Executive Director Agnes Gallardo-Quitoriano comments. One of the families KnK is supporting has a daughter with brain damage caused by a stray bullet from a gang-related shooting.
“I’ve been coming to the learning sessions for ten months,” Michelle says. “I liked reading the story of Gandhi because it made me realise that you have to strive to be able to reach your dreams. I’m very thankful to KNK for giving me the opportunity to complete my studies and to integrate with other students.”
There has been progress in recent years. Children who attend the alternative learning sessions regularly can now sit an exam and get a qualification which is recognised by the Department of Education as equivalent to either an elementary or high school diploma. However, the pass rate remains low at around 25 per cent.
In order to tackle some of the other problems in Payatas, KnK runs parenting effectiveness sessions in the local community. This includes awareness raising activities on health, education, hygiene and protection from abuse. “Staff and volunteers encourage parents to attend the seminars for them to better understand their responsibilities, support their children and motivate them to study,” Jess says.
After Tropical Storm Ondoy, Michelle stayed in a KnK evacuation centre, where she volunteered to help younger children affected by the disaster. She helped out with cooking and cleaning at the centre and was trained as a peer educator to assist in psychosocial support sessions, where children worked through their distressing experiences with arts and craft, music and play.
“I was frightened during the storm because I thought our house would collapse,” Michele says. “The current was very strong and our possessions were washed away or stolen. I was happy to come to the evacuation centre and take care of the other children. I would get up early in the morning to bathe the children, prepare their food and help with their activities during the day.”
“Many of the children’s homes were completely flooded,” Agnes adds. “They didn’t have clothes, food or soap but they were grateful for the peer educators. ‘We’re thankful we have older brothers and sisters to take care of us,’ they told me.”
The flood waters have now subsided from Michelle’s home and her family has moved back in. Her mother hopes to start work again soon and Michelle is planning to take the exam for her high school diploma equivalent. If she passes, she wants to work in catering to help support her family. “I’m inspired to study,” she says.
UNICEF’s work in the Philippines is based on upholding children’s rights, including the right to be educated, to be healthy and to a childhood. Together with KnK, UNICEF is offering the some of the children living below the poverty line in Payatas a way out of their current situation. But for too many others, life will continue to be a vicious circle of poverty, danger and desperation.
Find out more