Every evening, Phnom Penh residents can see little flashlights making quick movements around the city’s markets – the beam of light swaying from sidewalk to sidewalk. The light is coming from edjai, who are equipped with headlamps, as they scavenge through the trash left at the city’s markets.
A large number of edjai, or waste pickers, ride around the city on motorcycles pulling flat-bed carriers filled with plastic, paper, cardboard, and aluminum waste, all headed to the Vietnamese recycling units. Often, family members will accompany the edjai, helping to sort through piles of refuse.
These informal workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the city, with little to no social protections, even though they provide the critical service of recycling the city’s garbage.
Ou Ran is a 60-year-old worker who looks for waste materials to recycle in northern Phnom Penh. She has done this job for five years and earned on some days up to $10. But, this is only enough to buy food for her family and pay $25 in rent for the ramshackle shed they live in.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has made life difficult for Ou Ran, making even $2.5 a day is a struggle. This is because a lot of the recyclable waste collected by the edjai is sent to Vietnam for processing.
With an increasing number of positive virus cases in March, Vietnam unilaterally closed its borders to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, which, at the same time, was also on the rise in Cambodia.
This, however, meant cross-border trade came to a grinding halt, the domino effect of which affects Ou Ran, who is now worried about extra expenditures like healthcare costs in case she catches the respiratory disease.
“It’s very tough. No one buys scraps now, but I still keep collecting. I don’t know how else to make money other than this,” said the mother of two children.
The border closure means only a few scrap dealers are still purchasing from the edjai, said Phin Mom, who is also a waste picker. The prices she would get for waste collected has dropped significantly in the last few weeks.
She and her husband go out every day, despite the low demand, to collect waste. A kilogram of aluminum cans would earn her $1 in March, but now she gets only half that price.
Phin Mom said dealers were not buying plastic waste at all, and the price for metal scraps had dropped by half, from 700 riels per kilogram ($0.17) to 300 riels, or around seven cents.
But the couple has little option but to continue collecting waste; hoping that dealers will resume their operations.
“It is just both of us and one cart, we go anywhere at night,” she said. “In short, I collect any scrap that I could try to sell.”
Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, said informal workers, including edjai, were the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 economic downturn.
He said there were around 1,000 waste pickers in Phnom Penh, adding that they needed quick government intervention to survive.
“Now, the recyclers are most impacted. They don’t have any income, so they don’t have money for daily expenses. No rice to eat,” he said.
“They also live [and work] in a situation that has a high risk to their health,” Vorn Pao added.
Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters that the government had zero capacity to help informal workers, even asking motorcycle taxi drivers to sell their motorcycles to buy rice. After arresting a reporter for reporting the prime minister’s comments, the National Police said Hun Sen was not serious about the recommendation.
The government has so far announced monetary assistance to garment workers, $70 a month, and planned to provide $2.4 million to 30,000 tourism workers, around $80 a person.
Ministry of Economy and Finance spokesman Meas Soksensan said last week that the government had set aside 350 million dollars to help vulnerable communities, including the edjai and motorcycle taxi drivers, affected by the economic fallout from COVID-19.
He did not specify when and how much assistance would be given to these groups, only to say that the money would be used to “secure social stability” and “restore the economy after the pandemic gets less intense.”
“In other words, we will not let our people starve, especially those who are poor, and vulnerable. That's where the $350 million goes,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Khuong Sreng also did not provide any specifics on whether the local government would help vulnerable groups like the edjai.
“The local authorities know what to do. Local authorities are learning about it, and they have distributed [food], but it is not at the point where [villagers] are starving,” Khuong Sreng said.
At a large warehouse in Russei Keo district, piles of plastic, and metal and paper waste line the walls. The warehouse is full of waste collected by edjai, but with nowhere to send it.
Mao Tran, a 44-year-old scrap dealer, said Vietnamese buyers had completely suspended their operations, with only a few local buyers in Phnom Penh purchasing scrap.
This was evident in how little he spent buying scraps from recyclers, down from the $250 he used to spend a day before the pandemic, to around $25 currently.
The small business owner is himself facing a difficult financial situation. It has gotten hard to pay $300 in rent for the warehouse, he said, and the nine people he had on staff, who would also collect waste material for him every day, have since returned to their homes in Prey Veng province.
“I only buy metal and cans. Plastics and cardboard are not valuable at the moment,” Mao Tran said. “I can sell the metal [waste] once every 10 days or so. I can barely pay for the warehouse space.”
Back at her little shed in Russei Keo district of Phnom Penh, Ou Ran is thankful her landlord has not asked for last month’s rent, even providing her with some money and rice to deal with this tumultuous period.
The neighborhood’s residents have also noticed Ou Ran’s situation, providing what little they can to help the family. While grateful for this friendly assistance, the waste picker is willing to do any other job to sustain her household. But, COVID-19 has made that close to impossible as well.
“I want to help clean plates at a noodle shop, but they already have people for that,” she said.