Montevideo’s Felipe Cardoso landfill receives c.2600 tons of waste daily, delivered by c.600 vehicles (LKSur et al. 2013:8). When I conducted fieldwork in 2014, around 38 men and 2 women made a living from daily toil at the dump, their presence an open secret. On entering the landfill, one would find waste pickers spread out in small groups over the uneven surface of the tipping platform. Known as gateadores (crawlers) because of the way they have had to sneak into the site in the past, landfill waste pickers generally worked with one or two socios (partners), although some laboured alone. From a relatively secure base where they stockpiled diverse materials in large sacks, gateadores would venture over to dumping trucks to survey their loads. Generally uninterested in the municipal compacters that brought household waste, gateadores would focus instead on private transport companies that dealt in commercial waste. The hope was that such trucks might contain large quantities of desirable recyclable materials (plastics, metals, cardboard, paper) or clothes, food, and furniture that could be consumed domestically or sold at markets, the latter category of objects referred to by clasificadores as requeche (‘leftovers’).
There are many reasons why waste-picking work at Montevideo’s landfill might be considered precarious. Clasificadores weaved between dumping trucks and compacting machines, relying only on tacit communication and patience from drivers to avoid injury. They had no agreed health and safety standards, and wore neither high visibility uniforms nor, for the most part, gloves, when rifling through potentially contaminated materials. They dressed in dirty, ragged clothing that seemed to indicate poverty. They were able to enter the dump only thanks to the implicit agreement and tolerance of municipal managers, and the police officers who observed their presence could seemingly remove them at any moment. Wageless workers depended on whatever they could unearth at the dump, living hand to mouth or as they put it, ‘from day to day’. Changes in materials and commodities markets completely outside their control could significantly reduce their income, as evidenced by the dramatic fall in the price of PET in the Uruguayan market in recent years (CEMPRE 2016).
Yet the clasificadores with whom I worked tended to view the landfill as a bulwark against precarity rather than a symbol of it. For them, it was the madre cantera: the mother dump or quarry. In referring to the landfill as a cantera (quarry), clasificadores referenced the fact that Montevidean dumps used to be situated at old quarries—waste was used to fill in geographic depressions—and indicated waste pickers’ extractive relationship to the space. A key element of this landfill-mother metaphor, meanwhile, was the idea that, whatever you had done, you could always (re)turn to both your mother and the cantera. The first thing my friend Samuel did upon leaving prison a decade ago, he told me, was to make for his maternal home, and then for the madre cantera. Samuel is from one of the largest waste-picking families in the neighbourhood where the landfill is situated, and was in his fifties at the time of my research. A long scar from a botched hernia operation ran along the bottom of his gut; more visible was a picaresque smile, always on the verge of muttering a dirty joke, or directing a flattering comment at one of the female social workers who assisted the recycling cooperative where he worked. He had been imprisoned years before for wounding an officer in a shoot-out with police, after being called to the aid of a brother. This was a time when his family—the Trastos—was a formidable force in the neighbourhood, and on whose occupied land police would only enter armed, and with great caution. The Trastos are an example of the close links between the worlds of crime and clasificación, but rather than organised crime controlling the waste trade, as has been documented in other countries, the decision to (re)turn to the cantera was in this case a decision to move away from criminal activity and to earn an honest living from discards.
Samuel’s brother Ruso, another former jailbird, spoke of requecheros who would ‘turn up at the mother of the rubbish with a pot, fill it with food, and leave’. ‘She was everyone’s mother’, my neighbour Pelado explained, ‘because you went there and rescued something to eat, somewhere to sleep, with sheets, mattresses, and no-one would bother you’. In and out of care and foster homes, Pelado had eventually found his way to the madre cantera. Faced with precarious human relations, clasificadores conceptualised and relied upon an unconditionally caring and giving maternal landfill. This observation is rather important for a discussion of precarity which takes seriously the term’s Latin root (precari), which means to beg or entreat. In this sense of the term, work at the landfill is not fully precarious, because clasificadores do not usually need to beg, demand, or reciprocate in return for its fruits.
Gorda Bea’s son Juan would arrive back from the dump like Father Christmas, spilling out the contents of a large sack onto the living room floor, to be perused by his excited wife and children. Soft drinks, biscuits, colouring books, pieces of chicken, sachets of shampoo, bottles of beers, fruit, vegetables, and yerba mate tea would tumble out: food for his family but also to share, so that my fridge was often overflowing. There were different types of firewood; sheet metal to repair his horse’s stable; and colourfully printed cloth that his wife washed, cut, and hung as curtains. Many neighbours made their fences from pallets, while the bars on my windows were soldered from requeche metal. Ruso’s daughter Jessica told me that her family only had to buy bread and milk, with the rest of the week’s groceries taken from what she called ‘the big shop’. In such narratives are echoes of hunter-gatherers who perceive the environment as ‘giving normally in abundance but at least sufficiently to meet requirements’ (Bird-David 1990:194) and other marginal urban groups who ‘live more or less in poverty …[but] appear to take a ‘natural’ abundance for granted and to forage for their subsistence’ (Day et al. 1999:1).
With regard to earnings, I was able to calculate a 2014 mean of U$6500 pesos (US$295) per week for the core clasificadores, ranging from a low of $2000 pesos (US$91) for Ruso’s daughter and daughter-in-law, to $12,000 pesos (US$545) for one of the more established and hardest working men. The divergence between the earnings of different clasificadores was explained by days worked; the quantity and value of materials that entered; productivity; materials classified; and the landfill division of labour. If the price of a particular material fell too dramatically, gateadores quickly switched to another. Even considering these variables, the unskilled jobs available to many gateadores simply did not match the hours:income ratio possible in the cantera, recourse to which gave them greater choice over what jobs to accept.
Did gateadores accept more precarious working conditions—more ‘exposure to danger’—in exchange for a higher income? There is certainly something to this argument. But certain gateadores insisted that they had better informal health and safety procedures than recycling plants or cooperatives. I discussed the issue with Chino, one of the most respected clasificadores, while he classified hunks of metal at his home in the thin strip of shantytown that ran along the road leading up to the landfill and where, over two generations, a small community of waste-picking families had built homes. Chino was hard-working and generous, a man who could be relied upon for a favour in times of need. Physically, his long black eyelashes softened his features and contrasted with his muscular frame, while the dirt of a day’s labour darkened further his tanned, leathery skin. He argued that:
In the plants and cooperatives, they break open little bags [rompen paquetes] but we don’t. We have contact with the rubbish because we walk on top of it. But we all have suitable clothing: boots, gloves. Nobody wears normal trainers or sandals on top of the rubbish. We don’t break open the rubbish [romper basura] or chemical things, or things from the hospitals. We work with things that are useful for us: it’s more hygienic. The problem is that people don’t know how we work. In the plant, they have a conveyer belt, where people open bags which could have something contaminated inside. That’s the issue.
I heard of few illnesses caused by the consumption of requeche food, as gateadores used their senses and common sense to distinguish the feo (putrid) from the sano (intact, fit for consumption). Samuel told me that he had never become ill when working bare-chested at the landfill and had built up a resistance to germs, but had begun to be dragged down by flus and bugs since beginning work in a closed cooperative space. There were also very few accidents at the landfill, because gateadores were experienced at navigating the ‘waste-scape’. Kathleen Stewart’s evocation of the way ‘the precarious, ethereal existence of a place gets hard-wired into senses in a state of sheer attunement’ (2012: 159) seems fitting here. Only once during my fieldwork was a waste-picker half buried by a compacter, as he grasped for a bag of copper before it was swept away. He had been under the influence of pasta base, making him less aware of his surroundings, more desperate not to lose his treasure.Footnote 1 After pulling him out, senior clasificadores were enraged that his carelessness had put their jobs at the landfill at risk, because a serious injury or death would surely lead to a police enquiry and exclusion, in the short term at least.
The landfill had been there for Jessica, Ruso, and Juan when formal sector jobs had proven unreliable. Jessica had held several jobs in the private sector, but was fired from her last after a dispute. She lived close to the cantera, and made more in a morning’s work than she could in a full day on the minimum wage. Ruso had lost a job in a plastics factory and then decided, in words repeated to me by other clasificadores: ‘Bueno, me voy pa’la cantera (Well then, I’m off to the dump!)’. ‘At my age, where else could I find work?’, he asked rhetorically. For Clara, a widow who started classifying in 2000 after falling on hard times, the landfill was more secure than her previous job attending clients for a corrupt notary. ‘The notary asked me to return after she was released from prison but it would have been risky’, she told me. The cantera, by contrast, was ‘easy, in the sense that you made money, took home requeche, and worked when you wanted’.
There had been periods when gateadores had been expelled from the landfill, and a change in landfill management might bring with it a less-tolerant approach. But not all gateadores perceived this as an important threat. The most recent large-scale eviction of waste pickers was in 2002. After they blocked the gates to the landfill in response, gateadores were granted permission to receive waste on a closed part of the landfill (the Usina 5), where they formed COFECA. Cooperative work and pooled earnings were advantageous for female waste pickers who saw their incomes increase. Others, like Chino, did not last long in the cooperative, unhappy at the loss of income and privileged access to trucks. They stubbornly returned to the landfill, and persisted in the face of police repression. The fact that Chino had survived different periods of harassment led him to assure me that ‘there will always be gateadores in the cantera’.
While gateadores were exposed to danger, then they mitigated it through experience and informal health and safety precautions. Those engaged in substance abuse were clearly in more danger, but for these young men, work at the landfill could be the least precarious element of their lifeworlds, providing them with a work-based source of identity and self-esteem, as well as the resources to sustain a livelihood. The informal nature of gateadores’ access to the landfill put them at risk of eviction, but in response, they developed a series of strategies to deal with this threat. For the most part, gateadores did not have to reciprocate in return for access to the landfill, which they characterised as a caring mother who gave unconditionally. By framing the landfill in this way, they could maintain a sense of autonomy and pride as they seemingly produced value from nothing, and in return for nothing. The following section explains how life at a recycling plant brought about a reconfiguration of risk, insecurity, and dependency in ways that were welcomed by some but soon brought others back to the porous perimeter of the cantera.