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COVID’s Hidden Frontline in Indonesia

December 17, 2020

By: Ella Flaye, Regional Director – Asia

2020 has been an extraordinary year for all us – a year which feels like the world paused whilst it grapples with a global pandemic and the unknown. For many of us that means retreating back to the safety of our homes and waiting for the world to reopen, but for some that isn’t an option. For essential workers, including waste workers, their work must continue. Throughout our work in Indonesia, one thing is clear: waste workers are a hidden frontline to our COVID-19 pandemic. 

Waste workers in developing economies like Indonesia are often from highly marginalised social groups, where every day’s wage counts. Throughout Indonesia’s pandemic, we saw waste workers on the streets of the capital handling waste with their bare hands, no masks or goggles to be seen and no one to support them. Society takes little time to appreciate what they do for us and how they keep our homes and streets clean, but without them there would be chaos and widespread disease, not to mention the irreversible degradation to our environment. 

This is where we at Rethinking Recycling saw an opportunity to support the communities we work with by supporting and protecting their waste workers through these difficult times. With our partners, we rallied to provide head to toe protection, health and safety guidance and even the provision of meals to waste workers and their families hit hard by the crisis. 

During the height of the crisis this meant all workers at our pilot sites, as well as other neighboring sites, had ample supplies of helmets, goggles, masks, overalls and boots, and access to running water, soap and hand sanitizer to keep them protected every day.

Providing essential protection & economic relief for Waste Workers

At Rethinking Recycling we have a deep passion for education and capability building so we grasped this opportunity to deliver trainings and widely publicize materials to ensure everyone understood the importance of PPE, sanitation and social distancing for waste workers. Our guidance and training materials were picked up by our partners at the ministries of the environment, public works and villages and disseminated to over 70,000 villages across Indonesia. 

COVID-19 decimated Bali’s economy leaving many families, including waste workers, without a means to put food on the table. We provided over 4 thousand meals to waste workers, waste pickers and their families during the first lockdown in an attempt to make their lives just a little bit easier through those dark days. Through the Rethinking Recycling program we brought all wages up to minimum wage – a near 200% increase and we ensured access to healthcare and provided on the ground training and coaching. 

Our programs are not successful unless our workers are respected and proud of their work!

Establishing the Rethinking Recycling Academy

In September 2020 we launched our Rethinking Recycling Academy in Denpasar Bali. The program empowers communities with all the skills and tools they need to run a successful recycling program including access to funding, operational and financial management and very importantly worker’s wellbeing. As for many others, COVID has impacted our program – what was once destined to be an interactive on the ground program has evolved into a highly digitized remote learning academy through an ed-tech partnership with Quipper. Through training our first Academy cohort we hope to improve the livelihoods and create good green jobs for over 300 workers across Denpasar. Every waste worker counts. 

Together we can create a resilient, sustainable waste management ecosystem in Bali and beyond.