Recycling Becomes Big Business, Displacing Informal Workers in Spain

This article is based on an interview that took place on 27th March, 2017 with Antonio Jimenez Gabarre (Toni), ATD Fourth World activist in Madrid, Spain. He has spoken out on rights, liberties, and the ambitions that he has for himself and for all people and communities in society. In a People’s University event organised in Madrid, he stressed:

“We are not poor, we are not homeless people. We are people lacking opportunities. I want to be self-sufficient in order to have a place to live and to be able to feed my family. I want to contribute to society. This is the reason why I hope I will get a job that will allow me to stop receiving the minimum income benefit.”

In the following article, Toni analyses the context in which he works on a daily basis in order to be able to live. He looks at the consequences that public policies have had on his working environment that have made it harder to be self-sufficient and earn a living through his own efforts.

“I live in a small village in Spain. There were five people in my family. My father was a taxi-driver and my mother was a housewife. When my father died, things went from bad to worse until we were living in the streets. The only work that my mother could find was collecting scrap metal. This’s how I learned this job, by seeing my mother doing it.

“Every day I struggle for basic needs. I struggle to feed my family. I struggle to put bread on the table. Like many other people, I have had a tough life. To earn a living, I had to go with my blue bicycle from one village to another in order to find buildings where I could collect scrap metal.

“We were doing recycling. Huge quantities of minerals used to be dumped because no one would recycle them, but we did. The price of scrap metal has gone down in Spain in the last three or four years. So you have to gather a huge quantity of scrap metal to earn a small amount of money and such quantities are impossible to carry with a bicycle. Also, I do not have access to large-scale demolitions or garbage dumps because I am not allowed in there. I am only allowed to gather the small quantities that people throw in the streets: a frying pan, a pot, or some cans. This is too little to earn a decent living.

“Scrapyards have become very popular among many business owners that have gone bankrupt because of the economic crisis and only multinational corporations can collect such big quantities, unlike the small scrap dealers who do it only to survive. Also, Madrid’s city council and the Spanish government have given these multinationals the green light so that they can make a fortune this way. If I had become rich thanks to scrap metal, I would own a big house. I would not live in the streets. I would not starve. I would not have cuts [he shows his hands]. I would not have injured myself so many times and I would have people working for me.

“Today, scrap dealers are regulated. They write down names and the amount collected and they send this information to the government. They have established a scale for the amount you can collect, if someone does not follow it, they have to pay the government. This tracking is done through scrap metal selling. They pay you cash, yet they send all the papers to the government, to the autonomous entities, the city councils and the tax office; all the information goes there. If someone owns a ramshackle vehicle that is not even worth scrap metal, they will take it away from you if you are making a living out of it.

“They have also created collection points, places where people can bring all the stuff they do not need or want anymore. These collection points are managed by friends of the government or high officials. This is why it has become much more difficult for people like us now. Everything that is thrown in the waste-containers or that has been left next to them belongs to the government. It is forbidden to take it and you will be fined if you do.

“They say they do it to protect the environment, but it is not true. What they really want is to control everything. They have seen that there are many of us who collect scrap metal and that, although we do not make a lot of money out of it individually, all together we earn quite a sum. They realized that they were losing a lot of money and they want all of it in their pockets. Waste will always exist and they have realised that it represents a major source of income.

“Today my blue bicycle has been put aside in my home. I work as a night guard, twelve hours per night, for a transport company that owns about fifteen trucks. They gave me a small room and my job is opening the premises to the trucks when they arrive and helping unload them. They pay me 600 euros a month. This job doesn’t allow me to spend the time I would like with my family. I am paying the person that hired me, my boss, with the most precious thing I have – my life and my time.

“I don’t know how to read nor write, but I have taken photographs. I have made my own sculptures. I have written two short stories and a book, not by myself, but in my mind. I went around asking my family, friends, children, and wife to write them down for me. Thanks to all these people who agreed to give me some of their time, who agreed to contribute something to what I was doing, I have managed to write a book of poetry. After that, I realized that this was a way for me to denounce things, because otherwise my words were not effective.

“I don’t have the time to learn how to read or write, because if I take time for this, my family won’t be able to eat. I have tried. After school I have tried to earn a living with scrap metal, but four hours a day are not enough to earn decent money. It is such a pity that there are people who own a lot of things that they could share and yet the opportunity to do so is lacking.

“We are not looking for luxury, we are asking for changes that will make society more fair and respect people’s dignity and well-being. We are tired of poverty. We do not want our children or any other people to suffer from poverty. We are people. We are human beings. We have a heart and our heart is aching. A family that cannot feed itself should be considered a crime. A family that is forced to live in the streets should be considered a crime. A child on the other side of the planet who dies should be considered a crime. Materialism is put above anything else. Life is always on the bottom rung. I am not saying they should give us things for free, nor that we should pay for nothing.”

Antonio prefers to talk about his life spent on the bottom rung through one of his poems.

His lifeless hands meet each other in the cold,
His body and his life have become part of the street.
His feet are the old trams that are still working in the streets of Madrid.
His freight car is a simple shopping trolley or a suitcase.

This tram is driven by a man with lifeless hands, lifeless because of the cold.
This is a non-stop tram that is heading nowhere.

In this tireless wandering in the streets and neighbourhoods, every day other trams can be seen.
More trams, older ones, can be found without a destination, sleeping in the streets,
From the glass windows of La Caixa and Caja* in Madrid, one can see the water falling,
Their beds are lifeless street benches,

Once these lifeless hands felt the warmth of opening one door and finding a home.
Now they only open the doors to the street.

Related Link
Global Alliance of Waste Pickers: A networking process supported by WIEGO, of waste picker organizations with groups in more than 28 countries.

* Spanish banks.