Unsung heroes: Jakarta’s waste picker women and their unpaid care work

by Rachma L Putri

“I think, as long as I remember, I never felt happy about my life. There is always too much burden in my life” said Darminah with teary eyes when I asked her about her work and daily life as a waste picker, a wife and a mother. In addition to her daily routine, she has to do a variety of unpaid care work such as providing meals for her family, taking care of her children, taking them to school, and caring for her ailing – and abusive – husband.

I heard this story when I visited a waste picker community in Gasong, South Jakarta, where I conducted extensive field work throughout this year. Waste pickers have a vital role as the frontline workers of waste management in developing countries such as Indonesia. They gather and sort household and community garbage from residential areas, local markets, and the streets. Then, they will sell their garbage to bigger waste processors or recycle it themselves.

This fieldwork was part of a collaborative research endeavor with three urban poor organizations in Jakarta.* In early April 2021, I visited the community with my fellow researchers to conduct the first round interviews and group discussions with members of the community. This allowed us to establish rapport with them as our interlocutors and learn about their daily life and hardships. Initially, I mostly spoke with men in the community, because generally speaking, men in Gasong play a more public role in community affairs.

The next round of group discussions was conducted during the fasting month of Ramadhan (mid-April to mid-May 2021). During this time, conversations became more informal, this is when I first spoke to a group of women waste pickers.

We gathered and sat together at one of our interlocutors’ living quarters. I asked about their everyday activities and what they do as waste pickers and women in their families. Most of them had similar answers: usually they wake up in the morning to do some domestic chores such as cooking breakfast and preparing their children to go to school. Their husbands, who also work as waste pickers, go to work early in the morning. The women will go after they are done with their domestic works, around 9 AM, and finish earlier. For example, Aunt Surtini, a local resident of Gasong, will work around 10 AM until 3 PM on Wednesday until Saturday, and for the rest of the day she will focus on taking care of her children.

Working as waste pickers is a tough job for men in Gasong. Like female waste pickers, they have a small income, minimal social protection, and poor safety in the environment. However, I would argue that, despite shorter working days as waste pickers, for a number of reasons, the daily work experience is even tougher for women in the community. First, many women in Gasong have to earn extra income from other informal jobs to support their livelihood, such as selling coffee or traditional snacks in the street and cleaning the nearby cemetery. All together, they sometimes work longer hours than their male counterparts.

Secondly, they face the extra burden of domestic work and unpaid care work, which make their conditions even more precarious. Women’s working conditions, like men’s, are tough, although their work and working conditions are even less recognized than men’s. This is because an important part of it takes place at home (the housework), which renders their labor “invisible” to the public eye.

Unpaid care work refers to work in the domestic sphere such as cleaning, providing meals, nurturing the children, and taking care of the husband and the elderly. It is everything that people do to ensure that their family members are taken care of. However, this burden is typically imposed on women. This kind of work is immaterial, invisible, and unremunerated despite their centrality in supporting the modern capitalist economy. Silvia Federici, a Marxist-Feminist scholar and activist, refers to this work as housework and has been advocating for the recognition of housework as a form of labor in her “Wage for Housework” campaign since the 1970s.

Many women, irrespective of their socio-economic status, face challenges relating to housework. This is particularly true in Indonesia, where the dominant patriarchal culture sees unpaid care work as a “duty” for women. It is however even more challenging for working class women. They work tirelessly to support their family financially. Yet, they are also expected to maintain good family life through extensive unpaid care work. As Federici explained in her book, care work or housework in capitalist society is not only imposed on women, but also naturalized. This is also the case in Gasong. The waste picker women told me that they enjoy doing housework because they consider it as a “habit” and “duty.”

Waste picking is a vital part to support waste management and the broader urban life. However, its informal status means that the work they do remains largely in obscurity, and that they cannot count on any government support. This is even more true for the unpaid care work mostly done by women, which is hardly supported by government or community initiatives

The Covid-19 pandemic has also reminded us of the centrality of their role during critical times. The waste picker community in Gasong risk contracting disease by continuing their work, while others stay at home.  Their role becomes even more crucial during this pandemic since the amount of household waste has increased substantially. At the same time, women in the community also have to maintain their housework to support their households. In other words, they risk their own health to maintain societal hygiene, cleanliness, and order, both in and outside the house, in a period during which it is more essential than ever.

Perhaps the time has come for us to show our solidarity with these unsung heroes, highlight their important role, and recognize the value of their labor. I will start by keeping in touch with my friends in Gasong.

*This is a collaborative research endeavor between the Progressive Islam Forum (FIP), a collective of young Muslims for social justice, and three urban poor organizations in Jakarta: The Indonesian People’s Struggle Union (SPRI), the Urban Poor Network (JRMK), and the Ciliwung Balekambang Community. I would like to thank FIP and my interlocutors in Gasong for their help throughout my fieldwork.

Rachma Lutfiny Putri is a researcher-activist based in Jakarta and a member of FIP. She maintains a strong interest in urban development and gender issues from the perspective of social reproduction theories.

One Comment on “Unsung heroes: Jakarta’s waste picker women and their unpaid care work”

  1. Dear Rachma Putri,

    Thank you for your vey interesting post. One result of my research on waste-picking in Indonesia is that waste-picking is an acitivity with only small gender differences. You show that such an equal view is too postive. I hope we will get the opportunity to talk about our respective reserach projects.
    Freek Colombijn

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