One Day With An Etjai, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Etjai means “recycling” in Vietnamese and is the name given to recycling waste pickers. There are thousands of etjais working in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. They pick up a two-wheel cart from a collection centre and work the streets during the day or throughout the night, stopping at various places to buy cardboards, cans, plastic bottles, and various other recycling goods to sell it back to the collection centre for a slightly higher price. They are among the poorest people, making in average between 5,000 and 10,000 riels a day (1 US dollar = 4,000 riels). Their job is part of the informal economy and is not regulated by any work legislation; however, their role in the current recycling process in Cambodia remains essential as there is no other structure in place to recycle goods this way.

I meet with one of them, a woman called Mon, at 6.30am at a collection centre close to the White Building. I followed her as she worked all morning until 1pm.

At the collection centre, she is given a few thousand riels for her to purchase recycling goods on her circuit. She starts her tour through the streets, pulling her cart and squeezing her red plastic pear to announce her arrival. First stop, a nearby street vendor from which she collects a few cans and plastic bottles. The process is the same each time. Put everything in a bin bag, weigh it, and pay the agreed price per kilogramme. She explains that the price varies from seller to seller, but gives her the possibility to resell the recyclable goods for a 10-20% profit.

Second stop, the back of a restaurant. Unfortunately, the cardboard is already reserved for another etjai who collected part of it earlier. Mon continues walking but gets a phone call on her mobile from the restaurant saying that actually they are happy for her to collect the cardboard as the other etjai is only willing to purchase the cardboard for a lower price, 400 riels per kilogramme, instead of 450 riels. She comes back and purchases the cardboard.

Mon then stops at a Buddhist Learning centre where she buys some old recyclable painting materials. She continues her journey to the market, where she collects cans and plastic bottles as long as an old push-car. Her cart is already full, so she heads to a collection centre which opens at 8am. Time for a short break and a drink before selling everything to the owner. These are the first riels she makes this morning, about 6,000 worth.
Mon starts her second round of collection. This time, she stops in the back of an aluminium company which has a few aluminium devices to sell toher, including 15 kgs of corrugated iron at 1,000 riels per kg and some dismantled parts of a fan. Her cart is full again and it is time to re-sell this second batch to the White Building centre.

It is 9.45am. Mon goes again, for her third and last round of collection, at the same fast and dynamic pace she has been on since this morning. Small metal device from one and bags of plastic bottles and cans from another. We arrive on Sothearos Boulevard where thousands of students have gathered along the road to welcome the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Central Committee visiting the country that day. Time for a break as the road is blocked. It is a good opportunity for Mon, who can collect plastic bottles and cans left by the students.  Next step, more cardboard and plastic bottles from a restaurant. Mon’s cart is fully loaded and she calls her sister, working as an etjai too, to transfer some to her cart.

A few more plastic bottles later from the market, wood billboards discarded on the street by the students after the event, and it is already time to bring it all back to the White Building centre. 11 kgs of cardboard are sold at 500 riels per kg, 10.5 kgs of plastic at 2,300 riels per kg, 7 kgs of glass at 1,300 riels per kg, 3.2 kgs of cans at 5,000 riels per kg, and various other items. 55,300 riels, minus 11.400 for cart rental. That comes to 44,700 riels. Take out the cost of purchase, and Mon has earned 18,000 riels (4.5 dollars) in total for the entire morning. That’s a good day, she tells me.

We now take a tuk-tuk to her home. It is about 1h15 from Phnom Penh in the Dangkao district of the Andong area. Mon is 35 years old and lives in a small house that she built with her husband. They had to borrow 450 dollars from a landlord in order to purchase the land and buy the wood to build the house and they are reimbursing him 2.5 dollars every day. She lives in this house with her 5 children, her husband and her mother. Her children are 14, 12, 10, 8 and 1 years old. She tells me that her daughter of 8 is a bit “sick or crazy”. She actually has Down’s Syndrome. She is asleep when we arrive.

While breastfeeding her youngest daughter, Mon explains that this village has no electricity and no running water, but huge pots of water in each street corner, and each house keeps baskets of water for their needs. Mon tells me that before, they used to live in the Bodang Village Building in Phnom Penh, but the government expelled them from the building in order to redevelop it. All families here have the same story. She tells me that she would like to live closer to Phnom Penh, but the land is too expensive for that. Her husband works there too as a motodop driver and earns about 5-10 dollars a day. With both salaries, they have just enough to reimburse the house and pay for the food and various expenses of daily life. Her children go to school for free nearby thanks to an Italian NGO called CIAI (Italian Association for Aid to Children) which opened a school here for the children of poor families. Mon starts preparing the rice for tonight’s meal and her mother salts the fish while her son is washing the clothes. It’s time for me to take my leave of them.

I leave the slum in complete admiration of this woman who, despite the hard living conditions in which she lives in, wakes up every day at 4am to go to Phnom Penh and pull around her cart, who manages to raise her 5 children, including a daughter with Down’s Syndrome, and all this with a smile.