More than three quarters of a million Iranians have become unemployed during the coronavirus pandemic – and a new wave of scavenging has hit the streets of small and large cities across the country.
According to Massoud Babaei, director of the Ministry of Labor's unemployment insurance division, some 783,000 individuals registered for unemployment insurance for the first time between March 13 and April 28. Of these, 654,000 have so far had their applications approved. In order to fund extra provision for this number of people, Babaei added, the Ministry needs an additional budget of five trillion tomans (USD$334 million) and new payments will be contingent on that funding.
In its latest report, the Iranian Parliament Research Center estimated that depending on one of three modelled scenarios taking place, a total of between 2,876,000 and 6,431,000 people in Iran could ultimately lose their jobs due to the far-reaching effects of the pandemic. A significant proportion of those whose livelihoods now hang in the balance are day laborers and small business owners.
Based on the behaviour and mode of garbage collection observed on city streets, welfare officials have concluded that scavenging is already on the rise in Iran: an early indicator of the desperate socio-economic situation that many will have been forced into since the outbreak.
Workers at the Fasa Sugar Factory, which is currently closed, have reportedly been forced to migrate to other cities to collect and sell obsolete plastic waste after not being paid for seven months in a row.
Hadi Mahmood, a member of the Fasa factory workers’ council, told the Iranian Labor News Agency: "No one is reaching out to us and hearing our voices. They promise workers’ salaries will be paid, but in practice nothing happens.”
He added that most workers at the plant were stuck at home due to the lack of other jobs and employment opportunities: a situation likely to now be exacerbated by site closures in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Elsewhere in Arak, the capital of Markazi province, the number of people scavenging is thought to have doubled since the pandemic took hold in Iran. Hamidreza Qanati, head of Arak Municipality’s waste management department, said: “Before the outbreak of coronavirus, about 500 people searching the garbage were reported in Arak metropolitan area. But in the new year, following the closure of some businesses, but the number of these people has risen to 1,200.”
He added: “Urban waste is part of the municipality's property and according to the law, buying and selling it is a crime. In addition, these people are a high-risk factor in increasing the prevalence of coronavirus. The doubling in the number of people who do so after the outbreak in this city is a matter of concern.”
Malek Hosseini, the head of Tehran Municipality's Welfare and Social Services Department, also says that scavenging activity has doubled at garbage dumps in line with an increase in the volume of garbage being produced in the city. The activity has been banned in Tehran, he said, and added: “The behavior and activity of these groups shows that they are new to scavenging."
The apparent flood of people newly resorting to scavenging is an early warning of the challenges that might await post-coronavirus Iran. For years Iranian society has grappled bankruptcies and closures in the industrial sector, high worker unemployment, and the deepening of a nexus of economic stress factors. The number of marginalized people who have lost their jobs over time, taking refuge in dilapidated suburbs due to extreme poverty, has concurrently ballooned to 19 million: among them rough sleepers, drug addicts, and people forced to rent out their wombs, or sell their kidneys or even their children, to survive.
The post-coronavirus era in Iran is likely to see another surge in this population. Time will tell how many of the projected two to six million unemployed will be forced into this wretched position: of which scavenging by the newly-unemployed, bereft of any other means to put bread on the table, is one of the saddest manifestations.