Sunday, January 18, 2009

Down in the Dumps

I’m afraid I didn’t share the same reaction Nicholas Kristof did after he visited a garbage dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the poorest of the poor live. Nor did I come to the same conclusion as he did in believing that sweatshops are an alternative for employment.

I visited a dump in Mae Sot, Thailand, last month, and like Kristof, found it to be a “Dante-like vision of hell.” You might say the people there are the waste products of the global economy.

Mae Sot, reputedly a “frontier town” made up of 120,000 Thais, Burmese, Indians and Asian Muslims, is not far from the Thai-Myanmar border in the northwestern part of the country. The people living on the dump are Burmese refugees and illegal immigrants whose government is so oppressive, they consider themselves “lucky” to be where they are. They would probably have no place else to go had the Thai government not accepted them or at least turned a blind eye to their presence.

The air at the dump is filled with the stink of rotting garbage that is so foul it stays with you several hours after you leave.

The water the people drink, cook and wash with is polluted, including the beautiful, tranquil lake near the dump.

The ground is covered by mounds and mounds of trash, much of it toxic waste. While the dump’s perimeter is surrounded by luscious trees, wild sugar cane and weeds, the trash heaps keep expanding into these greener areas where the people live. So they simply give up and live on top of the trash.

Their “houses” are typically made of 10x10 foot bamboo frames covered with old tarpaulin. Tires are placed on the tarpaulin to steady it against heavy winds and rains. A lone “house” sits on one of the highest trash piles. It is either a sentinel or a defiant witness to the disgusting circumstances of this place.

Black hogs forage through the garbage oblivious to the people around them. Dogs wander about just like those in town do only these dogs are gaunt and diseased with open sores splaying through their fur.

Trash burns. Pools of mud lay stagnant, even in the winter’s dry season. A rat lies flattened in a two-dimensional profile of itself. A small, white plastic spoon, like the kind I’ve used for soup in the town’s restaurants, lies pressed into the loose dirt.

Suddenly, an industrious boy, about 10, eagerly runs to his house with a matched pair of boots that he apparently found in a heap. He stores them under the “floor,” which is a series of bamboo poles layed across the frame of the house and covered with an old mattress, rags and boards over a hole dug underneath the structure. Some rural Thais elevate their houses on stilts in order to keep the rats away. I doubt this boy’s “house” provides the same protection.

My guides who brought me here also bring eight dozen oranges to share with the people, who gratefully and graciously accept the treats. Some people keep their oranges to eat later while others, especially the children, attack them voraciously as they let the peelings drop on the ground. Their black-stained fingers take sections of the fruit apart. Then they shove the orange into their mouths noticeably savoring the juicy freshness so foreign to them.

The faces of the children are smudged with dirt, a complement to the yellowish-white “tree chalk” their parents have pasted on them, a typical relief treatment from the tropical heat that even city kids sport. In fact, the kids’ whole bodies are covered with dirt from the dump and from the second-hand clothes they find there. Most of the kids wear flip flops but some walk blithely in colorful rubber boots that protect their bare feet from the broken glass, cans, splintered wood and filth.

Whatever they have, the people have probably found it by rummaging through the trash. The children play with discarded toys. A toddler curiously investigates the properties of a deflated orange balloon by sucking on it. Some boys play soccer with a “ball” made out of a trash-filled plastic bag tied together.

A small group of men play dominoes and sip tea from tossed-out cups. They are intent on their game amid the activity of the oranges, the Western visitors and the mother bathing her squirming toddler in water nearby.

There is some schooling available to the children but it is meager. For these kids there is not much of a future that education could give them anyway—and their parents know it.

All 400 people living at the dump work: men, women and children. What attracts them here are the plastic bags strewn all over the dump. They collect the bags in four-foot long baskets that they carry on their backs to the recycling center about half a mile down the dusty road. The center gives them two baht (6 cents) per kilo for the plastic bags. They used to get five baht (17 cents) per kilo but the worldwide economic slowdown has affected prices even here.

If the recycling center closes, the people will lose their income in the same way that Kristof feared closed sweatshops would put people out of work. The pitiful thing about this situation is that keeping the recycling center and the sweatshops going is presumed to be the most humanitarian thing that can be done for these poor, poor people.

Kristof’s contention is that it’s better for the people to work in a sweatshop than to live in these dumps. Even the people, themselves, say they prefer a sweatshop to the hot, filthy, stinky dump.

However, these choices are specious. Mae Sot already has 250 sweatshops with many more on the drawing board. It is unlikely that the people living on the dump will get these jobs. They have no skills or legal papers.

What we need to understand from impoverished areas like Mae Sot or Phnom Penh is that our free market structures are bringing ALL the world’s people down into what human rights activist Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee against sweatshops calls a “race to the bottom.” Those who produce the products, those who buy the products and those who live off of the products once they have been discarded are all pathetically bound together. And unless this system changes, there is no exit from it for anyone.

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