The Voice Quilt: Amplifying the voices of waste worker communities

World Day of Social Justice gives us the opportunity to reflect on and highlight the need for social justice for marginalised communities like those involved in waste work in urban spaces. On this day, ARISE is pleased to launch the Voice Quilt – a novel multi-media project that brings the voices of individual waste workers to the fore, reflects their various concerns and desires, and highlights the importance of achieving social justice for those working in the world of waste.

India has over 5 million sanitation workers, including government-employed sanitation workers; privately contracted door-to-door garbage collectors; and waste pickers who work in the informal sector. While there are no official data on the number of persons engaged in waste picking in India, it is estimated at up to 1.5 million people.

Waste work in India is characterised by caste, class, gender and religious inequities, and most waste workers belong to historically oppressed and marginalised communities (Dalits, Scheduled Castes, and Schedules Tribes).

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hardest on the vulnerable and most marginalised, such as waste pickers – burdening them with disproportionate ill-health and the secondary effects of the pandemic.

In the initial months of the pandemic, the ARISE team at The George Institute for Global Health, India, like many others around the world, were unable to conduct any fieldwork. We  therefore focussed on what we could do remotely to make aid available to communities most in need. During our engagement with our civil society partners and research team located in ARISE research sites, we became aware of the many disadvantages experienced by waste workers and their families. The restrictions placed on movement in residential and municipal areas to address the threat of COVID-19 transmission posed insurmountable obstacles to the opportunity to collect, sort, and process waste, and exacerbated the hardships faced by waste picker communities.

Understanding the lived experiences of waste picker communities

The research team reached out to members of waste picker communities to conduct telephone interviews to understand their lived experiences through the pandemic, in particular their awareness of the disease, their sources of information on the pandemic, the aid available to people in need, their feelings and resources as they navigated this time, and the coping strategies that they employed. Contacting people on the phone automatically meant that those who did not own, or have access to, phones were excluded, as were those who were not assured of electricity in the straitened circumstances of the pandemic to keep their phones charged.

Following the first wave of the pandemic and the lifting of the movement restrictions, some field work was resumed, and discussions could take place face-to-face. The ARISE TGI team had conversations with several waste workers at the four sites, and learnt of a wide range of experiences of job security for those in regular formal employment or on short-term contracts, and livelihood insecurity for the many waste pickers in the informal unorganised sector; of depleting household resources and varying levels of access to aid in cash and kind from governments, civil society organisations, workers’ collectives, and private philanthropy; of helplessness in the face of neglect and stress; and of solidarity and moral support from kith and kin, and strangers.

Creation of the Voice Quilt: Privileging the voices of waste pickers

While our findings from these interviews and associated research are bound for analysis, interpretation, and dissemination along the traditional research route, we felt strongly that the individual voices of the waste working community deserved to be heard. We wanted to create a channel to convey the experiences of waste worker communities in their own voices, unencumbered by the researchers’ lenses of interpretation. This is when the concept of the Voice Quilt was born – the Voice Quilt is a novel multimedia project utilising audio clips, imagery and written text to showcase the perspectives and lived experiences of members of the ARISE TGI communities of waste workers. Each ‘voice’ – or patch on the quilt  – is represented by a piece of fabric characteristic of the state of India that the project participant belongs to.

Working towards social justice for waste worker communities

It seems pertinent to be launching the Voice Quilt on the 2022 World Day of Social Justice, given that the overriding theme of our observations and reflections is justice, mostly the absence thereof. Specifically, this year’s World Day of Social Justice theme – ‘Achieving social justice through formal employment’ – also resonates with our findings that formal employment provided a degree of security and significant access to information and aid, somewhat mitigating the adverse experience of the pandemic. Conversely, waste workers who did not have formal employment were the hardest hit by the health care demands of the pandemic itself, and further by the many regulations and restrictions put in place to counter the threat of disease-spread.

Our hope is that, by amplifying and privileging the voices and experiences of waste worker communities, the Voice Quilt provides a better understanding of their lived realities, and the challenges and action needed to work towards social justice.