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Contested Understandings of Reclaimer Integration—Insights from a Failed Johannesburg Pilot Project


In the context of global debates on how to ‘formalise’ informal workers, work in the waste and recycling sectors has shifted to focus on the ‘integration’ of reclaimers (also known as waste pickers). This article analyses a pilot project conducted by the City of Johannesburg and its Pikitup waste management utility at the Robinson Deep landfill to explore how contested understandings of ‘integration’ by officials and reclaimers shape integration programmes and their perceived successes and failures. The article establishes that reclaimers and officials held almost diametrically opposed conceptualisations of integration. This conceptual rift, and Pikitup and the City’s ability to enforce their interpretation, played a central role in the failure of the pilot. The article contends that academic literature on integration should critically interrogate the power-laden, contested processes through which particular conceptualisations of integration are adopted in specific places, and the resultant implications for reclaimers. This approach can potentially offer new ways of analysing initiatives to meaningfully improve conditions and incomes of informal workers in other sectors, and spark conversation on what it would mean to focus on integration rather than formalisation in these other areas of work. At a more pragmatic level, the article concludes that any integration process must start with reclaimers and officials collectively developing a common conceptualisation of integration, while also acknowledging the challenges in doing so in the context of profoundly unequal power relations between them.

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  1. 1.

    See “Conclusion” section for further discussion of the notion of ‘empowerment’.

  2. 2.

    In 2019, this is yet to be achieved.

  3. 3.

    See “Institutionalisation in Cooperatives” for further discussion.

  4. 4.

    This figure of 6% was likely a gross underestimation, as a 2004 research commissioned by Pikitup itself in had noted that reclaimers were responsible for the city achieving recycling rates comparable to Western Europe and the USA (DSM 2004, p. E). In addition, it is estimated that reclaimers salvage 80–90% of all post-consumer packaging and paper collected for recycling in the country (Godfrey et al. 2015).

  5. 5.

    This statement is based on extensive engagement with parties in the sector in the development of the DEA Guideline.

  6. 6.

    It is important to note that most of the cooperatives were formed by community members, with reclaimers reporting that they had not known about this opportunity.

  7. 7.

    While women worked as reclaimers at other Pikitup landfills, male reclaimers at the Robinson Deep and Ennerdale landfills had successfully fought off numerous attempts by women to work with them (Samson 2012).

  8. 8.

    Similar training was run again in 2013.

  9. 9.

    For further discussion of the erasure of reclaimers’ epistemic participation in the development of urban recycling systems, as well as how current approaches to separation at source result in reclaimers epistemic dispossession, see Samson (2015).

  10. 10.

    Interestingly, ILO  Recommendation 204 on the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy (ILO 2015) does not use the word ‘formalise’ and does not define what is meant by a transition to the formal economy).


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The research for this article was funded by the South African Department of Science and Technology through the Waste Research, Development and Innovation Roadmap.

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Correspondence to Melanie Samson.

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Sekhwela, M.M., Samson, M. Contested Understandings of Reclaimer Integration—Insights from a Failed Johannesburg Pilot Project. Urban Forum 31, 21–39 (2020).

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  • Waste pickers
  • Waste picker integration
  • Power
  • Recycling
  • Local government
  • Urban environment
  • Informal economy