Women in Informal Employment fights gender pay gap in global waste picking amid female disease concerns
16 Feb 2023 --- Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) is fighting the gender pay gap in waste picking to empower women and raise awareness of the climate crisis.
The pay gap between sexes persists throughout the workforce. Gender inequality is spread across the pay spectrum from the top – with every dollar a male CEO earns, female CEOs earn US$0.86, according to a report by Kruze Consulting – to the opposite end with waste collectors.
“Men consistently earn more than women waste pickers. A gender analysis of official data in Brazil’s annual social information survey database concluded that men in waste picking earn much more than women,” Sonia Dias, WIEGO’s sector specialist for waste pickers, tells PackagingInsights.
Waste pickers are classified as people who salvage reusable or recyclable materials thrown away to sell or use for personal consumption. Waste picking is not considered a profession by societal standards. It, therefore, does not require any qualifications or training, often leading to lower-income and low-educated members of society taking on the role.
Waste pay gap
According to a report of Ghanaian waste pickers by the World Economic Forum, women waste collectors in the plastic value chain typically earn less than men.
“This is due to many constraints that women pickers face, which include the burden of childcare and difficulties in accessing high-value materials due to constraints posed by their male counterparts,” says Dias.
The lowest-paying positions in waste are washers and sorters. In the Ghana study, 99% of those roles were filled by women.
The study found that female waste pickers also have less power in the workplace. Only 7% of women worked in positions that allowed them to make decisions.
The report states that male waste pickers receive supplies such as pushcarts, storage facilities and personal protective equipment to ease their work and collect more valuable items, while women are not given the same treatment. The female waste pickers compete with men for the best recyclables while lacking advantageous equipment.
Harmful health effects
Female waste pickers are inherently disenfranchised in the position. According to the Center of Disease Control Report, chemicals added to plastics during manufacturing come with known human health risks and some disproportionately harm women.
Biological women store fat in their bodies more than men, which is ideal for bioaccumulating and lipophilic chemicals from plastics. The fat leads to higher absorption concentrations in women, even when the exposure rate is the same.
A report published in PubMed found that female waste pickers in Brazil suffered from worse health outcomes than men, respectively.
PubMed recorded hypertension in 26.3% of women and 16.2% of men (p < 0.001). Cases of bronchitis were 16.4% in women and 9.7% in men (p 0,003). Stomach worms were discovered in 16.0% of women and 5.5% of men (p < 0,001).
Additionally, 92% of female waste-pickers sampled in landfill and communities were middle-aged compared to 75% of their male counterparts, according to the World Economic Forum.
However, Dias calls attention to the fact that the number of male-to-female waste pickers is region-dependent.
“The gender breakout varies according to workplace and across countries. For instance, in Brazil, within organized waste pickers, for those in co-ops or associations, women comprise 58% of the membership, whereas within the broader category of waste pickers, male pickers are around 70%.”
She continues that in India, there are variations in the gender breakout depending on the place of work, level or organization.
WIEGO’s empowering mission
WIEGO created the Gender & Waste project to empower women, highlighting gender-related discrimination among waste collectors and allowing for them to bring attention to climate change.
“We want women pickers in Brazil to drive the work on climate change awareness and action,” says Dias.
The organization encourages these women to unionize to improve working conditions, promote personal safety and advocate for higher incomes. A central mission is to empower these women enough to try and rise out of poverty.
“In the context of the work done in Brazil, WIEGO’s team started a participatory action research mapping together with the National Movement of Waste Pickers, the NGO Insea and the Federal University Center for Women Studies Nepem. From the research, we drafted dedicated interventions to address women’s practical and strategic needs,” continues Dias.
WIEGO assembled a toolkit following a consultation with 60 waste pickers in Brazil. It calls for a gender-based program that includes continuous and inclusive actions such as literacy programs, political training, management training, public speaking training, daycare centers, sexuality, women’s health and educational campaigns on gender violence.
“We need to bring visibility to the gender dimension of waste picking. This can be done by mapping through action research what women’s constraints to economic, symbolic and economic empowerment are and what their practical and strategic needs are.”
WEIGO says it is needed to continuously develop and implement empowerment programs for women, including gender demands in the waste pickers’ collective claims at the local, state and national levels.
“We see a future where we will be facilitators of change alongside women waste pickers. This is already happening and women pickers are increasingly taking the lead in gender empowerment interventions.”
In related news, the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, which promotes the importance and role of up 56 million people working informally to collect plastic packaging trash across the globe, was officially recognized last year at the UN International Negotiating Committee for a global plastics treaty.
By Sabine Waldeck
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