Kids of the dump: Cambodia’s scavengers scrap out a livelihood

PHNOM PENH – Hauv Sokhon wears his blue baseball cap low over his eyes as he pokes through the stinking refuse of Cambodia’s most notorious rubbish dump. If he finds enough plastic and aluminium amid the oozing debris, he’ll earn a dollar today.

Wielding a metal hook, the 13-year-old has eked out a living at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey dump for three years, competing with some 500 others desperate to trawl through the raw discardings of a city of 1.2 million people.

"I don’t have any money so I come here to make some," Hauv Sokhon says matter-of-factly, then deftly plucks a pair of running shoes from the chassis of a truck roaring past.

As black smoke billows and flies mass over the stenching waste, he explains how he moved near the dump with his parents from southeastern Cambodia as they sought a better life.

"I don’t want to be working here. I’m very exhausted," he says.

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of aluminium fetches 200 riel (five US cents) and one kilogram of rubber earns 100 riel.

The figure is attractive enough in impoverished Cambodia, which is still recovering from decades of conflict that only ended in 1998, to lure scavengers who endure headaches, dizziness and infections.

Hauv Sokhon reckons the work is better than roaming city streets.

"I used to collect rubbish in the city and this is better work. Here at least I don’t have to walk so far."

Sor Phary, a 37-year-old who scavenged here for more than a decade before setting up as a buyer — and an occasional interest-free moneylender — estimates half the waste pickers are children. Injuries are frequent.

"Almost every day someone gets hurt," she says, weighing a load of plastic on her scales. "Just yesterday someone was injured when they were buried under a falling pile."

Stung Meanchey dump, where household, industrial, medical and other hazardous waste has been indiscriminately tossed since 1965, is slated to close in less than two years, when its 6.8 hectares (16.8 acres) are finally full.

A new dump proposed by the Japanese aid agency as part of a city-wide, 13.5-million-dollar waste management strategy released in March will provide jobs for an uncertain number. The remainder are likely to scavenge on the streets.

The most fortunate will be those who secure schooling or training with Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (For the Smile of a Child, or PSE), a non-government organisation set up in 1995 to give child scavengers a better life.

In a gleaming kitchen a world away from the fetid dump, a dozen white-uniformed youths peel potatoes, dice vegetables and chop meat as they prepare lunch to be served in their stylish, terra cotta-floored restaurant.

Like Hauv Sokhon, the teenagers once trudged through Stung Meanchey. Now, as they complete one of PSE’s courses, they eye jobs in Cambodia’s top hotels — which have already snapped up some graduates as the tourism industry takes off on the back of Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples.

Bou Sophoan, 20 and wearing a crisp white chef’s hat, says back when he spent a year as a waste picker with his siblings he dreamed about working in a restaurant.

"People working in restaurants and hotels always have nice clothes. I used to think often about that," the student says.

Bou Sophoan is among thousands who have been given a chance to escape the dump by PSE, founded by a French couple horrified by the conditions the children were working under.

PSE’s vocational training centre director Pin Sarapich says at first the couple — currently fund-raising in France — provided breakfasts at the dump for the children. They still provide about 400 breakfasts daily there.

"They then asked what the children wanted and they said they wanted a school, so we adapted," he says. That meant evolving into an organisation employing nearly 300, including fewer than 10 expatriates.

A "catch-up school" today allows about 1,000 children who have fallen behind to study two years’ curriculum in one. Families of those who can attend public schools are given rice in lieu of lost scavenging income.

"We realised that when they got to grade 12, however, they couldn’t get jobs. What they need for the job market is real professional training," says the director.

In 2002 the first of several training programs was launched, with the latest a mechanics course due to begin in September. About 360 students have graduated and 250 have jobs with good conditions, Pin Sarapich says.

Meanwhile a medical team provides treatment to those at PSE and surrounding schools attended by child scavengers, a kindergarten cares for babies of women at the dump, and parents of the children are employed to help sew school uniforms, cook meals and drive trucks.

Even with the dump shutting down, their work will go on, says French volunteer Marie du Boisgueheneuc.

"If the garbage dump closes, the scavengers will be on the streets, looking through garbage. It’s not finished," she says.

And back at Stung Meanchey, a new arrival indicates the tough road ahead.

Six-year-old Rong Chean, wearing sandals and a T-shirt with a cuddly teddy bear, is spending her first day here helping her big sister.

"I want to earn money for my mother because she owes money," she says, smiling to reveal tiny teeth browned by decay. She complains of the stench but doesn’t let it deter her.

"I’ll come tomorrow and the next day too. I want to come back because I want to earn money."