Making Trash into Treasure: Struggles for Autonomy on a Brazilian Garbage Dump



In recent years, the expansion of types of work that fall outside the category of formal waged employment challenge many of our anthropological conceptions of labor, class politics and contemporary capitalism. This paper addresses the need to rethink the meaning of work in the context of neoliberal capitalism by exploring the formation of new worker subjectivities and practices among catadores: informal workers who collect and sell recyclable materials on a garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Based on ethnographic research conducted among catadores from June through August of 2005 and in January 2007, this paper provides an analysis of the labor conditions, social relations, and forms of political organizing that have emerged on the garbage dump and which differ in significant ways from those found in situations of formal wage labor. Ultimately, this paper argues that while neoliberal capitalism has led to increased unemployment and underemployment among vulnerable populations in cities worldwide, the practices of those struggling to earn a living in urban informal economies are creating new spaces for alternative economic practices, social relations, and class politics today.