The worst-off of Istanbul: Pakistani and Afghan waste paper collectors

Waste paper collection in Turkey is big business but workers toil under harsh conditions. Mehmet Aksakal reports on the refugees whose livelihoods depend on this work

Thursday 21 October 2021 17:23
<p>The jobs of the waste paper collectors are under threat</p>

The jobs of the waste paper collectors are under threat

This article first appeared on our partner site, Independent Turkish

Waste paper collectors across many places in Istanbul, especially the districts of Sultangazi and Gaziosmanpasa, are Afghan and Pakistani refugees.

Waste paper warehouses often employ them because they work for lower wages and are less likely to quit.

The cart used by the waste paper collector belongs to the warehouse owner. The earnings are calculated based on the amount of paper collected daily and payments are made weekly.

Some warehouse owners also provide accommodation for the refugees they employ. Unemployed refugees with nowhere to stay often choose to collect scrap paper because of the free accommodation.

They earn somewhere between 50 to 70 Turkish liras (£4-£6) per day. Faisal, 17, came to Turkey from Afghanistan six months ago. His family paid smugglers 900 USD (£656) to send him to Istanbul for work.

Joining his friends from Afghanistan who collect paper from garbage bins in Gaziosmanpasa, Faisal also started gathering waste for a living. Faisal and his friends live in accommodation close to the waste paper warehouse, arranged by its owner.

The house is shared by 25 people, mostly Afghans, but there are also some Pakistanis among them. Each room sleeps seven or eight people and on average they earn 400 Turkish liras (£33) a week. Income varies based on the amount of paper collected –those collecting the most can earn up to 500 Turkish liras (£40) a week.

Every month they send 1000 Turkish liras (£80) from their pay to their families in Afghanistan. With the recent raids and arrests on waste paper warehouses in some areas of Istanbul, Afghan and Pakistani paper collectors in Gaziosmanpasa and Sultangazi now face the fear of raids and subsequent unemployment.

“I was a nurse back in Kabul, my family thinks I am working in the textile industry in Turkey,” said Muhammed, 33, who lives in the same flat as Faisal and works for the same wastepaper warehouse, came to Turkey four months ago.

He was a nurse at a hospital in Kabul before coming to Turkey and migrated after he lost his job.

When I asked Muhammed if I could take a picture of him, he refused and only allowed me to photograph his hands and cart.

Speaking to Independent Turkish, he explains why he did not want to be photographed.

“I used to be a nurse in Kabul and came to Turkey when I lost my job. I’m married and have three children. My family is in Kabul, but they do not know that I collect paper from waste bins in Turkey. They think I work in the textile industry.

“I’m ashamed to tell them that I collect paper from waste bins. If a picture of me collecting paper was to be published they may see it, that’s why I don’t want to be photographed. I don’t understand why [the government] wants to ban this. We aren’t harming anyone.”

Muhammed adds: “I would love to work as a nurse in Turkey too, but I don’t have a work or residence permit. I’m here illegally and can’t speak Turkish, so it is difficult to find a job. I can’t find any other work, so I am collecting waste paper.”

Speaking about the recent raids on waste paper warehouses, Muhammed says: “I heard something is going on with waste paper collection, but I don’t know what exactly is happening. I heard they might ban it. If we aren’t able to collect paper, we will be left out in the cold, with neither a place to sleep nor a job.

Muhammed says he finds old clothes and shoes when collecting paper from the bins, “The clothes I’m wearing are items I’ve found in the bins. Waste paper collection is very hard, but I have to work to earn money.”

Shauni, 18, came to Turkey from Afghanistan three months ago. He was doing day jobs up until now, but joined his friends collecting paper from bins after becoming unemployed.

Weighing 60 kg himself, Shauni, shoulders 70-80 kg of paper to the warehouse at one time. Just like the others, he also earns around 400 Turkish liras a week and sends 1000 liras to his family in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, every month.

Shauni explains why he does this job: “There’s no work in Afghanistan, so I came here to work. I wanted to work in the textile industry, but because I had no experience, I wasn’t able to find any work. Collecting waste paper is very difficult, I sometimes carry around 70-80 kg with this cart, I get very tired. Fifteen people live in the flat I am in, but I have to work to make money. If they ban collecting paper, I’ll have to look for something else.”

They work in unsafe conditions and live in crowded unsanitary homes, but they have no other choice.

Nonetheless, even under these conditions, they are happy to be able to work and send money to their families.

“We make little money, our job is tough and very dirty, but we are happy to send money to our family,” he says.

Ahmed, 25, from Kabul, has been in Turkey for two months. “I earn 400-500 Turkish liras a week and send 1000 liras to my family in Kabul. My mother, father and seven siblings live off the money I send,” he says.

Ahmed explains how he arrived in Turkey and started waste paper collection: “There is no work or education in Afghanistan. I wasn’t able to study and start a career, so I came here. But because I work illegally and don’t speak the language, I can’t find a decent job. I can only work in construction or collect paper from waste bins.

“Because the boss gives us a place to stay when we collect waste paper we don’t need to worry about renting a home too.

“We make little money, our job is very difficult and very dirty... Because of this some of our friends have wounds on their hands,” says Ahmed, and adds, “We are exhausted, but we are happy to send money to our families.

“If we were in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t be working; we wouldn’t be able to support our family.”

Translated by Ata Turkoglu and proofread by Meric Senyuz. Reviewed by Esra Turk, Tooba Ali and Celine Assaf

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in