A loosely-bonded group of about 15 poor families who scratch a living from trash
collection on the streets of Phnom Penh are about to experience a major upheaval.
During the day every able-bodied person heads out to find resellable trash. The kids get schooling when there's cash to spare.
They will soon be expelled from the area they have been using as a kitchen, dining
area and trash sorting depot, along a construction site fence, at one end of a block
formed by Streets 63, 184 and 200, in the Boeng Rang commune.
This piece of dirt, between the roadside kerb of one of the city's busiest streets,
and the corrugated steel fence at the rear, measures about two meters by 10 meters.
It has been "home, hearth, factory and rest area" to most of these people
for the last three years when drought forced them to abandon reliance on subsistence-level
farming at Svay Rieng.
Talk to virtually any of the hundreds of small groups camped anywhere on public land
around the capital where there is shelter and shade, and a way to sell something
to buy food and fuel, and you will hear a similar story.
"We didn't have enough to eat and we could not earn any money, so we piled into
shared taxis and came to Phnom Penh," said one of the group leaders, Thong Sokhon,
43. "Has it been worth it? It's not something we can think about; we had no
choice. But yes, we are better off. We are making enough riels per day from selling
trash to get us through the next day."
She doesn't know how many they number in total because people come and go, but thinks
about 15 families are represented, ranging from infants to grandmothers.
During the day every able-bodied person heads out to find resellable trash: cans,
glass, plastic bottles, cardboard, steel and any other metals. They have six two-wheeled
carts and these are used to bring bulk quantities back to the depot for sorting and
delivery to a nearby bulk trash dealer.
Individuals scour the area for treasure, concentrating on the big O'Russey Market
where the pickings are good. Aluminium cans are the most valuable: two are worth
100 riel. Every day they accumulate about 10kg of paper, about 4kg of rubber, plus
large numbers of cans and bottles.
The women cook food and mind the toddlers.
Most of the men find work on building sites, earning 7,000 to 8,000 riel a day.
While all this is happening the women are cooking food on their charcoal burners
and minding the toddlers. When it rains they put up plastic sheets and play card
At night they split into small groups and doss down at various sheltered sidewalk
locations around the suburb, sometimes under a roof, the lucky ones under mosquito
netting. Most sleep sitting up.
They've been here so long they no longer notice the roar of traffic, the fumes and
the dust, and the dirt-ingrained color of their skin and clothing.
People passing by (particularly foreigners) sometimes give them things, like bottles,
cans and maybe some food. The French school around the corner recently gave them
some women's clothing and 15 kg of rice. "We'd like to thank everyone for those
gifts," says Sokhon.
The only people who hassle them are the police. "Every few weeks they come along
and tell us to move, so we pack our stuff in the carts and go around the corner then
we just come back later. But at least we never pay bribes."
Some of the group returns to Svay Rieng for the rice harvest in January or February,
as they have a small plot of leased land. Others are able to find a little paid harvesting
work. But that is the only break they have from a miserable existence on the streets
of the capital.
The big apartment block has been rising behind the fence for about six months. "When
they are finished they will ask us to leave," says Sokhon. "We will look
for another place like this; everybody will go out to see what they can find."
Sokhon says they don't seem to suffer many health problems, except things like headaches
and colds and they buy medicines from a pharmacy when necessary. They try to keep
themselves clean but it's a losing battle against the environment they live in. They
wash when they have access to water. They say they don't defecate on the street,
but use the public toilets in the park corner in front of the National Museum (although
that is at least 2km away).
They collect paper, rubber, plastic bottles and aluminium cans (the most valuable, worth about 50 riel each).
Sokhon is one of the few who has had an education, but only to grade 3. She has become
the camp mother and is the main negotiator when it comes to selling to a dealer.
She was 14 when her parents were taken away by the Khmer Rouge, and she never saw
They need their kids for trash collection, but Sokhon tries to get them into school
whenever there's a little cash to spare.
"There is nothing good about this life; not enough sleep, never enough to eat,
just getting enough to survive the next day. Maybe the junk collector is a forever
job," Sokhon says. "If I had the choice I'd like to live in a small town,
get myself a bicycle and have a small business buying food from the market and reselling
it or cooking food for sale. That's what I'd like."
What has she learned about the human spirit?
"Families working together are a powerful force, and no matter what destiny
or life throws at you, our will to survive is stronger."
* Translation by Cheang Sokha