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.


On the largest garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's hundreds of self-employed workers, known as catadores,1 retrieve recyclables from the 9,000 tons of waste deposited there each day. Many of these workers are second-generation catadores whose parents raised them by collecting on the garbage dump since its inception in the early 1970s. However, the vast majority came to the dump in the past 15 years, unable or unwilling to find formal employment in a shrinking job market. The work of these latter catadores comprises part of the dramatic expansion of informal economic activities worldwide, which has accompanied the implementation of neoliberal reforms as well as the growth in persistent unemployment and underemployment in the “hyperghettos” (Wacquant 1989, 2008) or “hypershantytowns” (Auyero 1999) of today's urban marginality.

The practices of catadores and other informal workers challenge many of our anthropological understandings of labor, class, and capitalism today. In part this challenge stems from the failure of conventional conceptualizations of the working class to capture the varied experiences, practices, and relations of the urban poor who work outside conditions of formal wage labor (Nash 1989). Furthermore, the emergence of flexible production systems, the shift from industrial to finance capitalism, the “race to the bottom” of labor conditions resulting from trade and capital liberalization, and the decline of trade union militancy have prompted many scholars to assume the declining significance of class and class struggle (see Pakulski and Waters 2001). A recent issue of Anthropology News put forth an urgent call for a rebirth and rethinking of the anthropology of class, arguing that its current neglect in the discipline is “partially explained by the fact that many contemporary scholars have mistaken the transformation and decline of the Fordist working class, a specific historical formation, as the end of class itself” (Carbonella and Kasmir 2006:8). The challenge for social science today may not be the death of class struggle but rather its transformation into new forms, spaces, and categories of work. By examining the political actions of catadores as well as the implications of some of their practices, including their creative reuse and recycling of the waste of capitalist consumption, I argue that situations of informal employment constitute new spaces in which class politics are emerging today.

In what follows, I take a practice-oriented approach to informal employment through an analysis of the ways in which the work conditions, social relations, and organizational forms of catadores in Rio de Janeiro illustrate various aspects of contemporary capitalism. Recent studies in the literature on informal economies have begun to examine alternative forms of organizing among self-employed workers, that range from the incorporation of informal laborers into established trade union movements (Gallin 2001), to the creation of cooperative organizations from within the informal economy (Datta 2003), to more sporadic political actions of the formally unemployed (Bayat 2004). I seek to contribute to this literature, which recognizes the political potential of informal laborers, by providing an ethnographic perspective on the process of political organizing within the context of informal employment. Furthermore, my analysis of the work of catadores continues past discussions in the Anthropology of Work Review, particularly that of Mariano Perelman's article in the spring 2007 issue, on the meaning of unemployment for anthropological understandings of work. Perelman argues that the anthropology of unemployment and informal labor has tended to frame the activities of urban poor in terms of survival strategies rather than conceptualize them as forms of work (Perelman 2007:10). In what follows, I aim to respond to Perelman's call for greater integration of poverty studies and the anthropology of work, especially in the South American context, by examining how the activities of catadores have produced new worker subjectivities, consciousness and social relations.

I base my analysis on ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted from June to August of 2005 and in January of 2007 on a garbage dump, which I call Jardim das Flores, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. This dump extends over 321 acres and currently consists of a hill of over 75 million tons of waste deposited over the course of 30 years. Most of the catadores who work in Jardim das Flores live in the neighborhood outside of, but adjacent, to the dump. Numerous informal enterprises other than recycling abound there, such as carts selling food or shacks supplying catadores with showers and changing rooms. Furthermore, roughly fifty unregulated depositories, where collected recyclables are sorted and pressed, are scattered throughout the neighborhood. As an indicator of the scope of the informal economy in Jardim das Flores, it is estimated that over one and half million reais2 move through Jardim das Flores each month through economic activities that lie outside of state regulations and formal employment contracts.

My research in Jardim das Flores consisted of participant-observation of economic, social and political activities that occurred both on the dump and in the neighborhood. I also conducted interviews with thirty catadores on their work histories, perceptions and experiences of working on the dump, and their participation in socio-political organizations that have arisen in Jardim das Flores in recent years. After providing background information on the work of catadores, I begin the analysis in this paper with a discussion of the labor conditions on the dump in Jardim das Flores that differ from those usually found in situations of formal employment. I then move on to an examination of the social relations and organizations enabled by the labor conditions in Jardim das Flores and created through the daily practices of catadores. I conclude with a discussion of the ways that the work of catadores illuminates and critiques class formation and neoliberal capitalism today.

Work in Jardim das Flores

The work of catadores includes a variety of activities and stages in the production process. Catadores focus their efforts primarily on the collection of recyclable materials – paper, cardboard, plastics, glass, scrap iron, and aluminum3– that they sell to intermediary buyers who own depositories in the neighborhood outside of the dump. However, catadores also collect items such as household wares, clothing and shoes for reuse as well as food, which has passed the expiration date but is still in good condition, for personal consumption. Finally, a few catadores raise pigs that they feed from discarded food found on the dump. The secondary collection of items for reuse is not a separate process. That is to say, at the same time that catadores collect recyclable materials, they retrieve and put aside any items that they find worthy of reuse.

A work day at the dump4 consists of filling burlap sacks with recyclable materials usually sorted into major categories of paper, cardboard, hard and soft plastics, and glass. Intermediary buyers drive trucks onto the dump to load the burlap sacks and the catadores accompany them (sitting on top of the burlap sacks on the back of the truck) to depositories located throughout the neighborhood. At the depositories, the majority of which are operated as informal unregistered businesses, each burlap sack is weighed and the catadores are paid for the sack according to its weight and the type of material that it contains. Catadores on average earn a monthly income of R$600, roughly twice the minimum wage salary in Brazil at the time of research. The range of income among catadores, however, can vary greatly depending on ability and experience in collecting materials and on the number of hours worked in a given month. Furthermore, the income of catadores fluctuates with the seasons of the year: more material is generated in the summer months as a result of increased consumption during holidays than in the winter. During my research, which took place during the winter months of June, July, and August, the majority of catadores interviewed stated that they were presently making only R$300 a month.

Catadores work for themselves in that they each fill and sell their own burlap sacks. However, they often work alongside family members and friends, keeping an eye out for each to avoid potential injuries and helping each other carry heavy sacks. As I describe below in a discussion of apprenticeship on the dump, the work of collecting recyclables involves numerous skills that newcomers usually learn by working with a seasoned catador. These skills include the ability to quickly distinguish between various kinds of materials. Differences between types of plastic, for example, are not easily identifiable by sight but must be determined by touch or by the sound that they make when crushed. Catadores must also acquire a sense of the rhythm of work on the dump: the movement of vehicles, the pace of collection, and the fluctuations in the arrival of trucks. In what follows, I consider in more detail the conditions of work on the dump, as they compare with the labor conditions of formal waged employment and as they speak to issues of social consciousness and social relations in the informal economy.

Autonomy and Conditions of Informal Labor

Work conditions in Jardim das Flores differ most clearly from formal employment with respect to control over the labor process. In part, this is due to the particular characteristic of garbage that, seen as unwanted items whose ownership has been forfeited, becomes available and accessible to the public.5 Thus the dump in Jardim das Flores is open to anyone who wishes to work as a catador. In an effort to register the numbers of catadores, in 1996, the company that manages the dump instituted a policy that requires that every catador wear an orange or yellow vest to enter the dump. These vests have two numbers on them, one designating the number of a depository to which the catador is supposed to sell the material and the other identifying the number of the catador. However, in practice this policy does not function as intended. New catadores make duplicates of the vests and they sell to whichever buyer they choose. This means then that for a person to work on the dump, he or she needs nothing more than a cheap vest and a burlap sack for collection.

Unlike most members of the formal working class, catadores are in a position to determine the schedule, pace, and intensity of their work. Furthermore, catadores work in the absence of any supervisor, manager or boss, and therefore, are not subjected to disciplinary practices that arose in conjunction with capitalist wage labor (see Thompson 1967; Foucault 1995:149–151). Many catadores value these characteristics of their labor, often appealing to the conditions on the dump as a reason for working in Jardim das Flores. When I asked Dona Teresa, a 70-year-old woman who has spent over 50 years of her life working on garbage dumps in Rio, why she became a catadora, she replied without hesitation, “Freedom, Right? I don't like to be ordered around and I also don't like to order others around. I like to collect.”

Many catadores echoed these words of Dona Teresa with their stories of past employment and their arrivals in Jardim das Flores. Anderson –a 28-year-old catador on the dump, who ran away from an abusive mother when he was young, lived as a street child, eventually found work at a warehouse, and who has now worked on the garbage dump for 9 years – described the process that led him to Jardim das Flores:

I worked all day hauling bags of cement from the trucks to the warehouse. All day. The boss treated me poorly. I couldn't miss a day, not even if I was sick. He wouldn't let me leave early so that I could attend night classes to finish the eighth grade. I wanted to study or to do some course, become a truck driver, something. But I always ended work at eight o'clock and classes started at seven. Pure exploitation. I didn't like the boss. He humiliated me. I knew about the dump, because I had come here when I was an adolescent, twelve years old. I decided to return to Jardim das Flores. And here I am, thanks to God, and what happens? No one orders me. I chose Jardim das Flores because of the exploitation.

Benefits of being a catador on the dump almost always included the ability to work at any time of the day or night any day of the week, the freedom to take breaks and socialize on the dump whenever desired, the immediate payment for material, the situation of being one's own boss, and the subsequent lack of degradation by overseers of menial service jobs. As expressed in Anderson's description of his work history, picking garbage on the dump is not just an occupation for those who are formally unemployed or underemployed. It is also a choice taken by those who no longer wish to endure certain working conditions in the formal labor sector.

However, the conditions of labor that enable autonomy on the dump also produce danger, disease and even death. The lack of regulations in Jardim das Flores gives freedom and flexibility to catadores, but also fails to provide safety measures, support structures, or compensation for injuries. Catadores are often injured by accidents with trucks and compactors on the dump, face numerous health risks including contact with needles from hospital waste, work unprotected from the harsh sun and rain, and endure the presence of mosquitoes, rats, roaches, vultures, and putrid smells. My point is not to romanticize work in Jardim das Flores, but rather, to scrutinize the labor conditions that differ from those of formal employment both objectively and subjectively from the perspective of catadores. The fact that catadores return each day to the dump and value their ability to work autonomously, given the hazardous conditions that they endure, indicates the degree of their disdain for certain aspects of wage labor.

Most catadores begin working in Jardim das Flores because they are unable to find a job in formal employment, not because they outright refuse the conditions of wage labor. However, once having worked in Jardim das Flores, the experience of autonomy becomes a motivating factor to continue working or, following an absence, to return to work on the dump. In her study of domestic work, Jane Collins has examined how the experience of performing labor outside of strictly capitalist relations of production can illuminate contradictions in values among different spheres of work:

Domestic labor has, in some cases, the potential to contradict value-regulated labor. In other words, use values produced within the home are prized as having more time spent on them, rather than less, as in capitalist competition[…] The implication here is that these spheres of activity may foster an incipient resistance to the time economy of the commoditized world. [1990:21]

Collins's observation that experience of autonomy in informal employment may lead to an awareness and critique of the alienating aspects of wage labor is supported by the work-history narratives of Dona Teresa, Anderson and other catadores in Jardim das Flores.

The labor conditions in Jardim das Flores do not only depend upon the position of catadores outside relations of wage labor. Catadores also create the conditions of their work through their daily practices. Catadores routinely engage in social activities on the dump that are not directly related to the collection of recyclable material. Such activities range from soccer games to communally made meals (often with found food items) to leisurely group conversations (bater papo). Through participation in these activities, catadores reconstruct the workplace as a space in which boundaries between economic and social life, public and private domains, and spheres of production and consumption become blurred. Work conditions created through the practices of catadores, therefore, not only enable an experience of autonomy, but also allow for the development and maintenance of social ties and for the integration of multiple dimensions of life.

Social Relations in Production

As already suggested by the ways that catadores (partly) shape the conditions and space of their own production, work in Jardim das Flores cultivates certain kinds of social relations that generally would be considered antithetical to production in formal wage labor. In contrast to the division between work and home associated with capitalist wage labor (Hartmann 1976), the work conditions on the dump in Jardim das Flores have led to the creation of social relations based on kinship and neighborhood. Entry into, as well as training and success in the the work of collection in Jardim das Flores, depend upon, and strengthen personal ties – whether of kin, friends or neighbors. In her analysis of marketwomen in Peru, Linda Seligmann emphasizes the importance of kinship ties in situations of informality:

When she [a novice marketwoman] first comes to the urban marketplace, she usually stays with relatives who are quick to inform her of how best to establish herself. She relies upon her relatives to introduce her to clients and to show her how to confront the language and demands of the bureaucracy and of local authorities. Once established, she cultivates her ties in rural areas to obtain primary products from her relatives there. [1989:706]

Similarly, most catadores learned about the possibilities of work in Jardim das Flores through family members and in some cases, through neighbors. In their accounts of their first days on the dump, many catadores also described how relatives or friends helped ease their entry into this kind of work. As one young woman, who had been working on the dump for 2 years, related:

On my first day here I found this place strange (estranho). [Why?] Well, the smell. I could not eat lunch. I felt nauseous and thought I would vomit. All the movement of people and trucks too. I did not think that I would return but my cousin convinced me. She came to pick me up the next day. You know, now I am used to it. You get used to it …

As a consequence of the importance of kinship ties in aiding and supporting entry into Jardim das Flores, many families work together on the dump, sometimes stretching across two generations.6 These ties, therefore, are maintained through work in Jardim das Flores. The conditions on the dump that enable the interspersion of work and social activities also permit practices of relationship-building. Many elderly or sick catadores continue to go to the dump, despite their inability to work, because they are able to continue participating in their social networks. One diabetic woman, Dona Maria, who had difficulty walking, went every day to the dump, sat on a half-filled burlap sack near the spot where her grown children collected, and spent the day chatting and gossiping with her family members and friends as they periodically took breaks. Another elderly woman in her 70s nicknamed Irmã (literally, “sister”) cooked meals on the dump for catadores with food that had been thrown out because it neared the expiration date. From time to time, catadores contributed one real in order to compensate Irmã for the oil and seasoning she purchased for the meals, as well as to support her since she no longer had the strength to collect materials.

The work performed in Jardim das Flores, therefore, goes far beyond income generation to include the social labor of cultivating relationships. For some, such as Irmã, these relationships do provide financial assistance in times of need. For others, though, these relationships enable the pursuit of life goals, of which economic livelihood is only a part. This is the case for Dona Maria who found company, consolation, and distraction from her illness by participating in the social interaction on the dump. This is also the case for socially excluded groups, for whom it is difficult to find a place of acceptance, respect and community in the urban environment of Rio. Many of the male youth catadores, for example, often hang out together on the dump, smoking or playing soccer. This interaction provides a form of camaraderie that is an alternative to participation in drug-trafficking gangs, which several of these male youths described as pathways only to imprisonment or death. Numerous travestis (cross-dressers) also work on the dump and explained their motivations for working in Jardim das Flores as stemming from their ability to pursue their lifestyle with others similar to themselves in ways that would be unacceptable in situations of formal employment. As many catadores indicated by their words and practices, work in Jardim das Flores facilitates the creation and maintenance of affective ties.

In addition to the embeddedness of work in kinship and friendship networks in Jardim das Flores, social relations on the dump also revolve around practices of cooperation. For example, catadores frequently employ a form of apprenticeship to teach the labor process to newcomers on the dump. Despite the appearance of work on the dump as unskilled, catadores must acquire an extensive amount of practical knowledge, such as how to avoid contamination from hospital waste, how to negotiate the traffic of garbage trucks and compactors, and how to make quick distinctions between different kinds of plastics and paper. Because no formal education provides preparation for this work, catadores acquire this necessary knowledge by working alongside someone who already has experience in the trade. As newcomers arrive on the dump, more experienced catadores take responsibility for them (including for their safety), working with them one-on-one. Often those who mentor new catadores are the same relatives or friends who connected them to the work on the dump in the first place. However, sometimes friends of relatives, or friends of friends, share this responsibility in order to mitigate the consequent cost of having to slow down one's own collection.

By examining social relations formed through and by kinship and cooperation, I am not arguing that hierarchies, conflicts or power inequalities are absent from the work environment on the dump. The first catadores to work in Jardim das Flores are regarded as the velha guarda (the old leadership) and maintain a high degree of influence on the activities and organization of the other catadores on the dump. Any kind of meeting or group political action, such as the recent formation of an association of catadores, must gain the (usually tacit) consent of the velha guarda. The authority of the velha guarda also extends to the enforcement of discipline when certain behaviors are deemed inappropriate or harmful to other catadores on the dump. For example, in July of 2005, the velha guarda stopped a group of catadores from overturning garbage in the streets of Jardim das Flores as a form of protest against the temporary closure of the dump that had resulted from a local political battle.

Other conflicts that commonly arise in Jardim das Flores concern the relationship between catadores and the buyers to whom catadores sell and less frequently, the theft of material on the dump. From time to time, buyers in Jardim das Flores join together and collectively lower the prices of recyclable material. Catadores are vulnerable to these fixed prices because they depend upon the buyers for payment as well as their ability to transport the collected material outside of Jardim das Flores. However, when prices have declined too sharply, catadores, in turn, have collectively refused to carry their material off the dump until buyers agree to raise the prices again. This action on the part of buyers, and counteraction by catadores, remains a constant underlying battle in Jardim das Flores. Finally, though rare, theft of collected material can occur, especially if catadores choose to leave their material over night. Victims of theft usually enlist the support of other catadores to find the thief and in order to settle the dispute without further conflict.

My point here is not whether social interaction in the work environment of Jardim das Flores is always cooperative or conflictive, horizontal, or hierarchical. Rather, an understanding of social relations on the dump requires attention to the ways that catadores organize themselves to manage, or even mitigate, discord and power struggles (see also Birkbeck 1978). Given that catadores work outside of any formal regulatory structures, it may be surprising that catadores are able to share a workplace, incorporate newcomers, and resolve issues of price and competition as smoothly as they do. Nevertheless, the social relations that catadores create through kinship and affective ties, as well as through the integration of social and economic activities on the dump, foster practices of cooperation.

New Politics of Informality

In his discussion of the broader implications of neoliberalism today, John Gledhill argues that small practices constitutive of more personal and less alienating social relations become political statements when confronted with the extension of neoliberalism into all aspects of life. He writes, “No distinct form of life is likely to remain wholly impervious to the individualizing and fragmenting tendencies of neoliberalization. The effects of neoliberalization, however, are also changing the political implications of the continuing reproduction of these forms of life (2004:345).” The practices surrounding the collection of recyclables on a garbage dump may not appear political. However, as demonstrated in the above analysis of social relations among catadores, these practices have created different ways of being and relating with others. Following Bourdieu (1977), these practices and relations constitute a different habitus and therefore, have the potential to create alternative socio-political worlds.

Indeed, in recent years, catadores in Jardim das Flores have begun to form an association that fails to conform to the model of a trade union, a social movement or a civic organization, but which has engaged in political battles over work, environment, and neighborhood at the local, national and international levels. The goals, structure, and practices of this association depend upon, and are shaped by, the social relations among catadores, providing an example outside formal wage labor of the relationship between relations in production and politics (Burawoy 1985). The development of the association of catadores also suggests ways that the expansion of urban informal employment is transforming the politics of class struggle today. In what follows, I provide an overview of the origins and practices of the association and then offer an analysis of the politics of informality.

Most of the active members of the Association date the birth of their organization to September of 2004. Around this time, 14 catadores began regular meetings to plan a march and rally to take place in December that they hoped would mobilize the thousands of catadores in the neighborhood to become more aware of, and involved in, the Association. The idea to create an Association of Catadores arose out of conversations between Zezinho, the current president of the Association at the time of this study, and a group of friends and acquaintances he had known well since adolescence when they all began working together on the dump. The grandson of a union organizer in the northeast of Brazil, and an eager debater of politics with his family and friends, Zezinho responded quickly to an opportunity to participate in a Young Black Leaders group in 2001. This group forms part of a project organized by a Dutch NGO called IBISS (Brazilian Institute for Innovations in Public Health) that seeks to reduce violence in Rio's favelas by educating youth to become effective, positive leaders in their communities. As a Young Black Leader, Zezinho took courses on Brazilian history, political organizing, social movements, and civil rights, and met over 40 other youths from favelas throughout the metropolitan area of Rio. Nanco van Buren, the founder of IBISS, also put Zezinho in contact with the Secretary of the Movimento Nacional de Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (National Movement of Collectors of Recyclable Materials, henceforth referred to as the MNCR), which began to organize in that same year. The MNCR funded Zezinho and four other catadores from Jardim das Flores to travel to Caxias do Sul in 2003 for the first Latin American meeting of catadores, where they met hundreds of other catadores from Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

In addition to these experiences with other catadores, who had already begun to organize as part of a larger movement, the imminent closure of the garbage dump helped instigate political organizing among the catadores in Jardim das Flores. According to the Public Ministry of the City of Rio, engineers estimated the tentative date for the closure of the garbage dump in the year 2005. Reasons for the closure of the dump concern dangers of a landslide due to the height of the garbage as well as environmental concerns that an extension of the dump may further contaminate the Bay of Guanabara. Previously, when garbage dumps in Rio filled and closed, the catadores translocated to the site of the new dump. However, this will no longer remain possible. The City of Rio plans to replace the garbage dump in Jardim das Flores with a sanitary landfill in another neighborhood. In accordance with the requirements for a landfill, the city will deposit future waste into previously constructed, lined cells. This system will make it impossible for catadores to have access to the garbage during the process of deposition. For the catadores, who often call the dump “A Mãe Rampa” (“Mother Slope”) because it provides the source of their livelihood, the closure of the dump astounds them as virtually unthinkable. One catador wrote in a newsletter to others, “The dump might not lead anyone to Heaven, but its Absence is the worst of all Hells.”

The Association of Catadores in Jardim das Flores thus began in part as a participatory group in the MNCR and in part as a response to the closure of the garbage dump. In the effort to inform other catadores about the closure and to call them to action, the first members of the Association began their own monthly newsletter called O Mensageiro da Verdade (“The Messenger of Truth”), named after the socially conscious rap singer MV Bill. Four of the leaders create a section of the newsletter, either reproducing information and articles from other sources or writing their own comments and ideas. The newsletter often focuses on the closure of the dump. An excerpt from the front page of the first edition states:

If you carefully analyze what you are about to read, you will see that, I am here to speak about a matter that interests everyone (Regardless of whether they are Men or Women, old hands or novices). Registered or not, we are catadores, this is a reality, the dump is about to close, but, if we work together, we can organize, together we will create a center to struggle for our rights as catadores. Therefore I count on the collaboration of everyone in order to unite together in this struggle, more organized. Thank You and Look for the Next Communication.7

As explained by members of the Association, by organizing and taking action in response to the closing of the dump, they do not intend to obstruct the closing. They know that the closing will inevitably happen and recognize that it is necessary in order to prevent the hazardous environmental effects that would result from continued waste disposal in Jardim das Flores. Rather, the catadores' organizing efforts arise from an acknowledged need to create a means through which to develop innovative solutions that will enable them to continue not only their work of recycling but also the conditions of autonomy in which they conduct this work. One such solution proposes the establishment of centers of coleta seletiva. This system, which the city of Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil has already developed and successfully implemented, involves the transportation of the municipal garbage collection to various centers throughout the city where groups of organized catadores sort through the material and retrieve recyclables for their own sales. City garbage trucks collect the remaining non-recyclable garbage from the centers, and then deposit it in the municipal landfill. In this system, the city provides the basic infrastructure necessary to establish the centers and organize the garbage collection around these centers, but the catadores themselves work autonomously and maintain ownership of all the recyclable material that they produce.

The Association has grown quickly in Jardim das Flores, reaching a current membership level of a thousand catadores. In many ways, the social relations among catadores has aided efforts to mobilize. Ideas and information about the Association spread through networks of family and friends on the dump, as well as through group conversations during lunch or breaks throughout the day. The process is informal and organic. One catador, Marcos, who became heavily involved in the Association, described his initiation as the following:

I entered in this struggle through Zezinho. Zezinho kept calling me all the time to participate, to go to meetings. I said no, that I didn't want to. But there on the dump we would stop [work], we would converse, talk. He wanted to take me to meet other catadores in other states, to see how the organization is there, how other catadores were organized. I started listening and then I understood that we too have to organize in Jardim das Flores.

Because of his charismatic personality, Marcos became an important organizer on the dump, especially in the work of concientiçazão (consciousness-raising)8 among the catadores. His methods for involving other catadores in the Association imitate those employed by Zezinho to attract him: frequent personal conversations during social hours on the dump. I often observed Marcos call over four or five other catadores and begin to talk to them about the experiences of other catadores in Brazil including the ways in which they have organized and the benefits they thereby acquired, the importance of their work as a profession, the pride that catadores should have as recyclers who contribute to the protection of the environment, and the immediate need to address the closure of the dump. Furthermore, a few of the members of the Association who write the newsletter O Mensageiro da Verdade often compose parts of it on the dump. Because much of the work of the Association takes place on the dump itself, catadores who are new to the organization can contribute and collaborate in small but important ways. The dump becomes a common space where catadores can hold meetings, plan events, and disseminate information.

The goals of the Association have likewise been shaped by the social relations among catadores, particularly the ways that these social relations have blurred boundaries between workplace and neighborhood in Jardim das Flores. Through the process of mobilization, the objectives of the Association have expanded to include much more than a response to the eventual closure of the dump. When asked to describe the objectives of the Association, Zezinho responded:

I think that the objective of the Association is to organize catadores for the struggle (a luta). You begin with this objective … but you also have to consider health-related issues, the needs of the community [favela] and other things that I know that every person [cara] has a right to, understand?

The Association has fought city government not only for the implementation of a coleta seletiva program in Rio but also for needed infrastructure in the neighborhood of Jardim das Flores, which has experienced rapid growth in informal housing in recent years in conjunction with the increased numbers of catadores working on the dump. The parts of the neighborhood of Jardim das Flores closest to the dump lack running water, sewage, paved streets, and schools. Despite its 30 years of history, Jardim das Flores does not appear on municipal maps as an official neighborhood. Though politicians may pay attention to Jardim das Flores during elections or other opportune times, they often forget about its residents in the interim. When the current mayor implemented a plan to order garbage trucks to use a circuitous dirt road, rather than the main thoroughfare to the dump, he failed to recognize that the trucks would subsequently pass within several feet of nearly a hundred makeshift houses, thereby creating dust clouds that would make it difficult to see or breathe. When I questioned one of the city councilmen about these effects, he responded in surprise, “What? Those ten shacks there?”

As an outcome of a day-long assembly in July of 2005, the Association presented a list of 10 proposals to the city government that included not only the recognition of the category of the catador as a profession and the implementation of a coleta seletiva program in Rio, but also the application of part of the Environmental Compensation Tax to urban public works in the neighborhood, the development of basic sewage and infrastructure, and the establishment of a health clinic in Jardim das Flores. The Association of Catadores has thus developed a politics that combines labor and community struggles. Furthermore, although the Association was born and continues to grow through the daily practices of catadores on the dump in Jardim das Flores, their efforts to mobilize have taken them far beyond the borders of the garbage dump. Catadores from Jardim das Flores have joined with catadores in other parts of Rio to travel jointly to meetings of the MNCR. They have also frequently expressed a desire to connect with the struggles of other catadores throughout the world. Every issue of the Mensageiro da Verdade bears the saying: “From Jardim das Flores to the World.” One of the leaders of the Association explained that this slogan reflects their goal of forming a new kind of work community in Jardim das Flores that could contribute to, learn from, and grow with other communities regionally, nationally, and globally.

Many of the organizations in the informal economy, such as the Association of Catadores, attract little attention from scholars of class politics and social change because they do not fit conceptions of what class struggle should look like. The Association may be a work-based organization, but many of its actions resemble those of organizations in informal settlements whose mobilizations revolve around issues of adequate housing, water, and electricity. While the Association at times participates in a larger national and international movement – one which would fit easily into the concept of today's “movement of movements” (Mertes 2004) – its goals and actions focus much more on the immediate need to protect the work and autonomy of catadores as opposed to broad social and political change. Finally, the aims and methods of mobilization in a situation of informal employment shift significantly from those of formal sector unions. The use of the strike or demands for higher wages and benefits, for example, do not make sense in situations of self-employment or unregulated work. The Association of Catadores illustrates the need to broaden conceptualizations of what counts as class struggle.

The failure to recognize the politics of informal workers also derives from privileging the formal proletariat as the site of revolutionary change (Nash 1989). The focus on wage labor in Marxist analysis has led to the expectation that class struggle will necessarily emerge from the employed sector of the population, rather than from peasants, women in the household, or from the industrial reserve army of labor. As Asef Bayat argues, “Relative to the centrality of the working class as the agent of social transformation, Marxist theory either ignored the urban poor, or described them as ‘nonproletarian’ urban groups, or ‘lumpenproletariat’” (2004:82). Indeed, terms such as “the underclass,” or “the popular,” used to refer to the urban poor in recent years, have been critiqued as both apolitical and work-empty concepts (Wacquant 2002; Harrod 2006). Failing to incorporate informal workers into the center of analysis of labor and class blinds theorists of class struggle to the political potential of those who work outside conditions of wage labor. The informal economy, precisely because it is informal and unregulated, allows for the possible development of economic activities in which workers have more autonomy and control than the formally employed. This autonomy can provide the flexibility, space, and power for groups to defend their interests vis-à-vis the state. It can also enable the development of alternative social consciousness, social relations in production, and economic practice.

The Underside of Neoliberalism

The expansion of the work of catadores in recent years is certainly a condition of advanced capitalism today. In part a result of uncontrolled inflation, structural adjustments and the implementation of neoliberal policies, an economic recession began in the 1980s in Brazil that brought an end to three decades of industrial and financial growth. The state of Rio de Janeiro, and especially its working classes, suffered particularly severe setbacks; the poorest fifth of the population lost 24 percent of their real income (Oliveira 1991). One catador described in a poem the economic conditions that led to his family's arrival in Jardim das Flores:

It was the year 1984Foi no ano de 1984
my father lost his jobmeu pai foi despedido
and so it was, I went to bed a princepois é, dormi príncipe
woke up a beggaracordei mendigo
Because in this BrazilPorque nesse Brasil
there does not exist employmentnão existe nem emprego
the only solutiona única solução
is for you to go worké vocês irem trabalhar
on the lixão.

Narratives such as the one expressed in the above poem attest to the interconnection between global economic forces and the kinds of informal economic activities that take place in Jardim das Flores. While not part of the inner logic of capitalism, informal employment is nonetheless tied to its rises and falls, its growth and expansions, its adjustments and transformations.

We cannot comprehend the informal economy without an understanding of the political economy of capital accumulation. But neither, for that matter, can we comprehend global capitalism without attention to the lives of the millions of unemployed in our world. Such attention to informal workers is important not only because it fills gaps in our knowledge of the urban poor or of the anthropology of work. It also reveals holes in the neoliberal economic system that expose possibilities for change. The growth of the informal economy in Jardim das Flores, in which increasing numbers of catadores work autonomously, operate outside of formal employer-worker relations, and control the means of their own production, is creating new spaces for the development of alternative social practices and relations. Through their work on the dump, catadores in Jardim das Flores challenge a consumerism inherent in the economic system, which produces mountains of waste in the margins of cities. That is to say, catadores make use of the waste of capitalism in ways never intended by its original producers. Catadores are not the only ones to do this. The exchange of second-hand clothing in Zambia (Hansen 2000) and the use of old soda cans for the creation of a Wi-Fi in a poor neighborhood in Santiago, Chile (Jennifer Ashley, personal communication, September 13, 2007) are just two other examples of the transformative practices occurring in capitalism's “outside.”

As a result of their mobilization, catadores also affirm the work and contribution of thousands of formally unemployed people who are relegated to a redundant population of laborers, often seen as the unfortunate, but necessary, human waste of the neoliberal economic system (Bauman 2004). They are also joining with other cooperatives and associations in a new economy of solidarity (uma economia solidária), in which workers' autonomy and ownership of production are supported and strengthened. Catadores on the dump often state, “o lixo é o que não presta,” (“garbage is that which is not worth anything”). By saying this, they maintain that they do not work with garbage, but with a pile of goods and raw materials that are still valuable. By saying this, they are also reconceptualizing and revaluing the objects and peoples that the present world economic system discards as waste.

As David Harvey's (2003) analysis of advanced capitalism illuminates, capital accumulation today involves processes of dispossession of the resources and labor of the most vulnerable in the world. However, as the practices of catadores suggest, the movement of dispossession can create a countermovement of strategies for repossession (Polanyi 2001). By pointing to examples of such strategies, I do not intend to reify dichotomies of formal/informal or domination/resistance. As expressed in the above poem, entry into the informal economy is often an experience of loss and suffering; one that is intricately tied to changes in formal employment. In addition, the experience of catadores presents just one of the many varied forms of informal work – all of which have different power configurations, risks, and struggles. By examining the labor conditions, social relations and political actions of catadores, I hope to draw attention to the practices of the dispossessed and the ways that many of them challenge conventional understandings of labor, class, political struggle and neoliberal capitalism.


  1. 1I use the word “catadores” (literally “collectors” and short for “collectors of recycable material”) throughout this paper because this is the term that is used at the garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro as a challenge to, and critique of, other terms that are derogatory, such as “scavenger” or “trash-picker”.

  2. 2At the time of this study, one and half million reals equaled approximately US$650,000.

  3. 3While I include aluminum as one of the materials that catadores in Jardim das Flores collect, it should be noted that very little aluminum reaches the dump. Street catadores, who retrieve recyclables from waste left out on curbs for municipal collection, are extremely thorough in finding and collecting aluminum because, of all materials, it sells for the highest price.

  4. 4The garbage dump operates both day and night. Many catadores work at night, especially in the summer, to avoid the heat. There is therefore no set “work day” and the number of hours that catadores work in a given 24-hour period varies greatly. Generally, however, a typical work day begins at dawn and ends in the late afternoon.

  5. 5There have been attempts, however, to privatize waste through formal recycling programs in which a private company is given full ownership over recyclable materials. This is a threat to the work of catadores and will be discussed in more depth below.

  6. 6As of 1996, the company that operates the dump began preventing children from entering. If minors were found on top of the dump, they would be removed. Sometimes adolescents manage to work at night because they are less visible but this is relatively rare. Therefore, when I refer to “families” and “generations,” I am only speaking of adult members.

  7. 7In translations of all printed material, I retain the punctuation and capitalization of letters as written in the original text.

  8. 8For further discussion of the process of concientização in revolutionary action, see Freire 2001.