The following piece was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country.
Like all big cities, Tehran produces vast amounts of garbage. But, as is often the case, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure — or in this particular instance, a child’s treasure. Mostly hidden from view, there are groups of children in Tehran that go around the city, look through trash cans, and separate out recyclables and other things they might be able to sell.
On average the boys doing this are under the age of 15, the legal working age in Iran. Every one of these kids has claimed a section of a street. If they happen to own a cart to transport the items they recover, then they really “have it made”. If, however, they have to make do without one, they set off every morning with a nylon fiber bag — described by the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) as “big and worn at the edges” — over their shoulder.
Some of the children dress in uniform, suggesting they work for an officially-recognized entity. “Some of the children wearing uniforms don’t work for us but for the contractor,” the city inspector-general Mostafa Faizi told the ILNA. “Maybe we’ve been negligent in warning the contractors about this practice. The collection of garbage in Tehran is outsourced. Dry trash can generate income at no extra cost to the city.”
But then, contradicted his previous statement, he said, “As a result, sometimes we witness illegal acts that are not in any way related to city contractors. Some people hire underage individuals to gather dry trash at dawn. We call them ‘shoulder-baggers’. But we’re not bailiffs responsible for rounding them up.”
If these children work for a specific person and in groups of more than two or three, they wait for their employer to take them to a nearby, agreed destination and go through trash armed with identical white nylon bags. “The group of five I accompanied were going to the Mirdamad neighborhood,” writes an ILNA reporter, referring to an upscale neighborhood in northern Tehran. “Garbage cans along the full length of Mirdamad Street and nearby side streets are at their disposal from morning until noon. They divide the neighborhood among themselves. Sometimes two of them explore a side street, with one searching houses with odd numbers and the other taking care of even numbers. One by one they upend big garbage cans. They are not looking for old clothes or paper. They separate plastic bottles and containers into one pile and metal containers into another. If they come across bags of stale bread they pick that up, too.”
According to the article, the groups of children “search so many blue and black cans that when midday comes they’ve filled bags taller than they are. Then they wait for the same white van that dropped them off to pick them up again, load the van up with their bags, and return to the square where they started their day.”
Crouching for “Money”
According to the ILNA report, some of these boys go to school in the afternoon, while others while away the rest of the day or loiter in streets near their homes. But they all go back to sifting through garbage the next day.
It is often said in jest that the streets of Tehran are covered in money, you just need to pick it up — and this is just what these children are doing. They crouch down inside garbage cans so they can make money by selling the “dry trash” for 20 US cents a kilo. The children say it adds up to between $8 and $11 a day. If they work during the week, the boys take Fridays off. “Workshops are closed on Fridays,” they say, “so we go and play football.” By “workshops” the boys mean companies that buy salvaged trash: their business is making money out of recycled plastics.
The children whistle to each other to get attention. When asked by the ILNA reporter about what they do, what time they go out and when they finish, they repeatedly interrupt one another, anxious to talk to the press. They all agree that it is a good job and laugh and joke about their routine, school and football.
“Our hands are always black and our textbooks are smudged,” they say. “We don’t have time to go home and change so we go to school like this.” One boy tells the reporter, “I work only half a day. I don’t work Thursdays and Fridays but I work more than my mother and father.” Another explains how the payment works: “They weigh our bags, then at the end of the week or the month they give the money to our fathers.” One boy imagines what it would be if he owned a cart: “I would work for myself, anytime that I liked to,” he says.
Sometimes they find treats. In one street, the children found a half-empty soft drink in a garbage can. The team of three shared it. The boy who found the bottle got to keep it.
In some instances, the children are shorter than the garbage cans they go through. Although they throw away any food they find, if one of them finds a dress or a handbag that is in decent condition, they keep it. “Somebody might have a use for it,” one of the boys says.
There are things about the job that bother them, and it is not the smell or the rotten food coming out of the bags that are often torn apart by stray animals. “We’ve got used to that,” they say. “If a child is crying in the street, his mother will point at me and tell the child ‘I’ll let the coal-boy take you away if you don’t behave,’” says 12-year old Mohsen. “Children are afraid of us. When they see us they run to the other side of the street.”
But it is not only children that collect waste in Tehran. Garbage collectors, young and middle-aged men who work during the night, are hired to do the same thing. When the reporter offers one of them some hot food, the man rejects it. “I’m not hungry. I’m working!” and disappears into an alleyway to avoid further questions.
These men do the same thing the children do, but they work throughout the night. Given that the garbage cans are always full, it is obvious there is plenty of work to go around. The city’s garbage trucks are rarely on time and garbage is constantly being produced, day and night.
The Tehran Waste Management Organization says that annually, on average, every Tehran resident produces six times more waste than his or her weight. On average, 320 kilograms of garbage is produced per person per year, reaching a daily value of about $77,000. While the world per capita average of daily garbage produced is 250 to 300 grams, Iran produces an average of 600 grams per person. In northern Tehran, the figure is as high as 1200 grams, four times the world average.
This is what makes sifting through garbage profitable for those happy to exploit children.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has yet to ratify international conventions that set a minimum age for working. The country has its own relevant laws, which human rights and children advocacy organizations regard as inadequate. It is debatable whether these laws are even adequately enforced.
“Most of the street children live in the slums of south Tehran and are sent out to work every morning by their parents,” reports Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a body formerly associated with the UN but now operating independently. “They travel to the affluent suburbs of north Tehran where they shine shoes, clean car windscreens (if they can reach) and sell an assortment of junk and oddities: chewing gum, flowers, fortune poems, nylon socks and cheap shoes.”
According to the IRIN report, in 2002, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) worked with the Interior Ministry's Bureau of Social Affairs to set up a committee to address the issue of street children. It hoped to expand the number of NGOs working with these children. However, UNICEF was unhappy with the results after it evaluated the services available to street children three years ago. The findings revealed that insufficient attention was paid to the dangers children face when going home, that the contact between families and aid agencies was weak and that little support existed for families trying to cope with the challenges of daily life.
International efforts to reform Iran’s child labor laws are both laudable and necessary. But what is equally important is that the Islamic Republic enforces its own legislation. It is crucial that the government work towards alleviating poverty at large and reducing income inequality. Until that time comes, as one of the garbage boys said, “it is good to have a job,” even if it involves sifting through a garbage can.