Magazine

The toughest place to be a binman

  • 30 January 2012
  • From the section Magazine

Jakarta and the surrounding metropolitan areas are home to 28 million people, and the Indonesian city is struggling to cope with all the rubbish it generates. What's it like for the binmen?

Each day soon after sunrise, Imam Syaffi sets off with his hand-pulled cart to collect the rubbish from some of the more desirable residences in Jakarta.

With his cheery cry of "Sampa!" (rubbish), he lets the residents in their gated homes know that he has arrived.

The spacious houses and leafy streets of Guntur, close to the financial district are a stark contrast to the cramped conditions elsewhere in Jakarta where many millions live in poverty.

In Guntur, the homes have walled courtyards or even gardens with palm trees or manicured shrubs and hedges.

If you want your rubbish collected in Jakarta, you have to pay for it. Only the well-off like those in Guntur can afford a binman.

While a few of Imam's wealthier customers bag up their rubbish, most just dump it in a hole in the garden wall. Imam clears it with his pitchfork and brush. He has to leave it clean for fear of complaints.

Almost no-one separates the recycling. Household waste, food, plastic and garden cuttings all end up in the mix and clearing it is back-breaking work in the sweltering heat.

Open drains

Imam's cart is the size of a large bath but three times as high - and it soon fills up. He has to trample it down to fit in as much as possible.

"Imam works double hard," says London dustman Wilbur Ramirez, gasping in admiration, sweat pouring from his brow.

It is Wilbur's first of 10 days, experiencing the life of a Jakartan rubbish collector. He has left his hi-tech, air-conditioned dustcart and team of fellow binmen 7,000 miles away to join Imam pounding the streets.

"It's been a bloody hard day and I don't even think I did a full day, I did two out of his three rounds and I was dying."

Most days, Imam fills the hand-cart three times, wheeling it back each time to empty it at the open tip next to the row of shacks where many of the binmen live.

Imam collects rubbish from nearly 100 homes, paid for by the local residents' association. For a six day week he earns 200,000 Indonesian rupiah ($22 or £14).

"This job is a lot more physically demanding than I had expected," says Wilbur. "This cart weighs a ton and it's usually a one-man game. Today it's me and him and I'm sweating like a pig."

It is not just rubbish that Imam deals with. The open drains outside his customer's homes often get blocked, leaving sewage and debris to build up. The only way for him to keep the drain clear is to get down into the flow and rake out the blockages.

"The man's in here in bare feet," says Wilbur, horrified. "There's glass, there's everything in there. This man's feet must be like rhino skin."

Scavenging

A job as a paid binman is valued because of the regular salary it brings and there are only 3,000 of them in the entire city.

Imam fears just one complaint could earn him the sack. "If it's not done, they phone the residents' association. There are lots of other people who need a job," he says.

Image caption The giant Bantar Gebang landfill site handles Jakarta's waste

"I'm afraid of what would happen if I got fired. What would my wife and child eat?"

After finishing his round, Imam still has hours more work ahead of him. The money he receives from the rubbish collection barely pays the rent on his small home so Imam and his family start their second job - recycling.

From the waste collected during the day, they pick out anything of value and sort it into separate piles which they bag up and sell. They work into the night sorting the rubbish.

Three nights of sorting makes the family 28,000 rupiah, about $3. For Imam and his family this money is the difference between eating and not eating.

Imam is far better off than some. At Jakarta's giant landfill site, Bantar Gebang, several thousand people make a living just from scavenging.

The bulk of Jakarta's waste, about 6,000 tons a day, ends up at this giant tip including the waste from Imam's round.

Image caption Jakarta produces enough rubbish daily to fill 10 Olympic-size swimming pools

But much of the city's rubbish - almost 20% - is simply dumped in the rivers which cross the city. The city's sanitation department pulls rubbish out of the waterways but it cannot keep up.

Imam is resigned to his life as a binman. "Even though this is hard, I have to do it, because I don't have any other skills. I would do any job for my family."

But he and his wife Windi are hopeful of a better future, especially for their young son.

"We don't have much money, but I'm still happy because my husband works hard to take care of me and my son," says Windi.

"Although he works with rubbish, he deserves to be treated with respect. He may be a bin man but he is still a human being."

Toughest Place to be a Binman is the first of a new series of Toughest place to be... on BBC Two at 21:00 GMT on Sundays from 29 January or watch online via iPlayer (UK only) at the above link.