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Scrap by Scrap, Argentines Scratch Out a Meager Living

Laid-Off Workers Survive as Trash Pickers

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 7, 2003; Page A01

BUENOS AIRES -- The ghost train arrives at dusk.

Hauling rucksacks, pushing grocery carts and makeshift dollies, the people known as cartoneros tumble to the platform in clots, then scatter through this twilit neighborhood of leviathan high-rises and marbled condominiums to sift though the evening's garbage for soda bottles, cardboard, newspapers: whatever the recyclers will take off their hands.


Miguel Machado, an unemployed factory worker, now searches for trash to sell to recyclers. Helped by five of his children, he might make $12 a night. (Fabricio Di Dio For The Washington Post)

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Miguel Machado is among the first to exit. He is 46, square-jawed, Rock Hudson-handsome and in a hurry. Picking through other people's trash is the family business and the Machados are short-handed tonight. His wife is home with the babies, both of them sick, leaving Miguel with the couple's five oldest children. With the recycling fetching only pennies per pound, every hand counts.

"Mario, come on," he says to his lanky 16-year-old son, who is pulling the hood of his sweatshirt over his head to fend off the brittle cold of autumn.

Miguel quickens his step, lowers his head, leans into his dolly.

"It's time to go to work."

When night falls, an occupying army of mostly cashiered factory workers rides the trains into the city from its rust-belt perimeter. On any given night, government officials estimate, there are as many as 40,000 garbage-pickers, or cartoneros -- cardboard men -- roaming Buenos Aires. That number has increased more than tenfold since Argentina's economic collapse. Now, there is not enough trash to go around. Miguel likes to arrive early and stake out his turf.

"People will fight you over the garbage," Miguel says.

He is standing under a streetlight with his children, poised and waiting for the night's rubbish to be hauled out.

"We are living like animals now," he says.

Scrap by scrap, the Machados grind out a few dollars a day from their neighbors' grime and refuse. Their improvisational effort is a template for millions of workers in the developing world who are part of a growing labor force that is off the books and on the margins.

Work is not what it used to be. Shrinking economies are squeezing the life from the full-time, 9-to-5 jobs with benefits and security that have historically been the bricks and mortar of modern industrial states. An amorphous informal sector accounts for nearly half of all jobs in the developing world, according to a 2001 study commissioned by the World Bank, and is growing larger still.

Here in Buenos Aires, that means a nightly scramble for trash. The doormen have their favorites and will often separate the good stuff and set it aside for families like the Machados, good people who don't just rifle through the trash bags and leave a big mess for the doormen to clean up. But you have to be quick or they'll leave it for someone else.

"The doorman has something for you," Miguel says to his son Lucas, 9, round-faced and chatty, and in the midst of putting his brother Jonathan, 11, in a headlock.


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