South American sirens

It seemed there were millions of people in South America in this challenging position - of recycling scrap metal, be it transistor radios or chicken wire. And their already challenging situation got a lot worse as soon as lockdowns were imposed.

Four years ago

Four years ago this week, I returned from my adventures in South America, travelling on a sabbatical to seven countries. It was an incredible few months and I was very lucky to be able to travel in a relatively stable period. I do sometimes wonder how I would have fared had I gone backpacking in late 2019, say, and found myself somewhere remote in Bolivia or Peru this March.

I have a soft spot for South America. I was treated kindly and warmly by friends and teachers in places as diverse as the Argentinian Pampas and the Colombian jungle.

Naturally, I’ve been trying to keep an eye on events in South America this past few months. I haven’t always been able to keep up.

Like others, I’ve superficially scanned some of the headlines: the extraordinarily high rates of infection in Brazil, for example, and Bolsonaro’s public statements on the Covid virus. I’ve scanned headlines about the terrible lack of support and infrastructure to bury people who died in Guayacil, Ecuador, and the tough impact of lockdowns on the many tens of millions of South Americans who work in the informal economy.

The informal workers

I wanted to write an article on the challenges faced by so-called Chatarreros, but I never got round to delivering it. Chatarreros – not my preferred term, I worry it has negative connotations – are individuals who work in the informal economy, who specifically collect scrap metal and take it to scrapyards for recycling.

I first saw with my own eyes how informal workers lived precariously, by taking shopping trolleys from one rubbish bin to another, when I briefly stayed in Barcelona at the beginning of the year.

I wondered how widespread this practice was, of people (often migrants) lacking basic security, feeling forced to spend their nights scavenging and finding scrap. In Barcelona, it seemed Senegalese people were disproportionately affected, placed in hideous positions and often without the formal residency rights needed to secure their place in Spain.

When I read a bit more, it seemed there were millions more people in South America in the same position – recycling scrap metal, be it transistor radios or chicken wire. And their already challenging situation got a lot worse as soon as lockdowns were imposed.

Even though I didn’t write an article, I did a little more research.

Good friends like Juan in Buenos Aires and Leandro in Bogotá assisted me, for which I owe them thanks. This is all rather dated now, and I am sure things have moved on, but I wanted to create a space where I can at least attest to what was being reported in some of the early lockdowns, in other words, how informal workers were being treated.

I wanted to know what support was put in place, especially for people whose livelihoods depend on being able to work on the streets, but who aren’t formally employed and who don’t therefore have recourse to public subsidies or funds. Here are some (not particularly well-evidenced) insights.

Barcelona, Spain

Starting in Europe, I heard talk of “trolley men who have found the sky has closed over them” and how hundreds of people who search for metal in Barcelona found themselves left without an income.

Some people couldn’t find any scrap metal in the containers they came across – the guild told people that they couldn’t buy anything from anyone, anymore. Some trolley men faced sanctions from the Mossos d’Esquadra – a police squadron.

The guild sanctioned some of the scrap metal businesses to open their doors in the morning; in the Catalunya region there are apparently over 400 ‘recovery’ businesses.

Of these, normally 70% are provided with an access point, at which trolley men can exchange metal for money. But the urban decree in Catalunya meant from March, that simply couldn’t happen. Scrap couldn’t be sold.

The guild responsible for this trade said that if the state of alarm imposed in Spain in March was to continue for much longer, it would affect the people “who are the weakest in the chain”.

Waste plants were paralysed. In the city of Barcelona, it is estimated that more than 400 people – most of them live in settlements on city sites – dedicate themselves to work with scrap materials. I am not sure what the latest position is.


(From El Tiempo, 21 May 2020)

In one neighbourhood of Bogotá, City Vivo, Don Nestor, the face of the informal workers in the city was beaten up. He was quoted:

“I know that I am old but this is a question of radical change and why haven’t I received support from any authorities for goods to be made available, – I was stopped and turned away”

He observed that it would have been better had the authorities contributed “hard” instead of beating him up so hard, but he was dragged and beaten by police by the Transmilenio train stop in San Victorino. The reasons why were rather confusing, but he wasn’t violent. He seemed only to resist being moved off the streets on which he depends.

Don Nestor said, “it’s illegal to search for food! In my shape, nobody will give me work. I have been applying for 10 years but never given work. Neither do I have access to any adult programmes.”

2 million like him are waiting for basic supplies. Police did end up apologising and, rather remarkably, he says he doesn’t hold any rancour.

(Cartagena TV, May 20th, Los Vendedores ambulantes quieren trabajar)

Mobile workers in the Caribbean city of Cartagena joined together to ask for a return to normal activities. In many positions, they are not able to feed themselves. The authorities established only 25% capacity for these workers is permitted in the local market, and preferably these were reserved for people in positions dedicated to selling food. But they’re also looking for other positions to be restored, those where mobile workers sell clothes and footwear.

But in the circumstances, only 1 of 200 workers was even allowed back into the market location that was the focus of Cartagena TV’s report. Even the 25% capacity rule wasn’t being fulfilled, leaving many bewildered how authorities were enforcing their own rules.

An interviewee said, “The Cartagena authorities have a lack of empathy.” There was real confusion about enforcement of the regulations, and why these restrictions were being imposed. Mobile stands had to be positioned 6 metres apart. One interviewee said we need to save the situation by putting people to work, but with security measures in place. He didn’t understand why the measures had to be so harsh.

(Guardian article on Colombia (2nd June) La Ciudad de Bolivar, Bogota)

The pandemic is hitting the pockets of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable hardest, the Guardian reported.

60% of Colombia’s economy is informal, with workers paid in hand and usually living day to day.

Public services seldom reach the peaks of the hills where the houses are precariously and quickly built and where it’s often built on untitled land.

The government promised food and economic relief to 3 million impoverished families in early April, though residents in Ciudad Bolivar say that little has been forthcoming.

On Sunday 31 May, city officials promised those who had been evicted that they would receive 250,000 COP (67 dollars) for 3 months, “but locals are not holding their breath”.

Friendly fruit vendors, nr Arequipa’s main produce market, Arequipa, Southern Peru

Bogota’s progressive mayor, Claudia Lopez, who had received plaudits for her frank and empathetic response announced on Thursday that the lockdown would be extended for another 2 weeks, even as other parts of the country lift their quarantine measures.

“Lifting the quarantine means death and disease, we know that and we don’t want that,” Wilder Tellez in the Ciudad Bolivar neighbourhood said, but “people aren’t going to wait and watch their children starve to death, we need help now, we need a quarantine with dignity, with food and a roof over our heads.”

Peru Lima (ATV Noticias) – La Victoria, Lima – ‘A public eviction of mobile workers’

Informal workers clashed with enforcement officers and were serenaded, ATV Noticias reported in May. But no physical distancing was being observed in this irregular situation, even though everyone was wearing masks.

Bolivia Santa Cruz – Unitel Bolivia

Police were running patrols of sections of markets that were becoming too crowded, returning to areas that they deemed “repeat offenders”. They cleared about 200 workers, the police representative said: “neighbours come out to thank this patrol.” The police made a certain number of arrests, 3 or 4 were loaded onto the trucks; the police spokesperson said they were “trying to get everyone to cooperate”.

Argentina Buenos Aires Villa Azul, BA, Guardian article, 27 May

Security forces in Argentina cordoned off one of the country’s poorest slums, preventing inhabitants from entering or leaving the neighbourhood after a surge of coronavirus cases.

Police officers erected barriers at the entrance to Villa Azul on the outskirts of Buenos Aires on Monday after widespread testing was launched in poorer districts.

By Wednesday, 174 of 301 tests carried out in Villa Azul had come back positive, and officials expressed concern that if the 4,000 or so inhabitants of the neighbourhood were allowed to move freely, they could spread the virus to other areas nearby.

The move was criticized by Argentina’s left wing government: “It looks like we are creating ghettos for poor people,” said a junior minister for social development, Daniel Menendez.

The Guardian says that across Latin America and the Caribbean, an estimated 113 million people live in low-income barrios, favelas or vilas.

Containment measures have caused fraying social relations in Venezuela’s Petare, and many other communities across South America besides.

CELS, an NGO in Argentina

The NGO has been asking for measures that guarantee the validity of human rights in a judicial case being discussed for the main populated neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires.

The presidents of communes 4 and of the city of Buenos Aires presented a collective ‘petition’ that seeks the City Government put into operation a specific protocol for the prevention of Covid 19 and to treat those who become ill.

Judge Dano Reynoso obliged the city council *GCBA* to present a protocol and to adopt urgent measures to guarantee access to sanitation; drinking water adequate spaces for isolation, sanitation of spaces for common use and the dissemination of essential information.

At the hearing, the NGO pointed out that the protocol that the GCBA presented does not have the necessary precision and asked that it be modified to

  • Guarantee basic issues related to the care of people suspected of contagion, adequate conditions for testing, waiting for results and reporting on the health situation. Plus adequate information for close contacts and for people who need to be isolated because they can’t themselves.
  • Create specific mechanisms to prevent possible evictions of tenants.

The federal government of Argentina (Ministry of Economy) participated in a webinar “For a Latin American agenda of redistributive reforms”.

Interestingly, they looked at wealth and income taxes that might sustain a rights based welfare state. The webinar looked at the differential impacts the pandemic has on women, according to a former UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepulveda, “this is due to the sustained increase in the feminization of poverty”.

Any next steps

I haven’t done the necessary research since May to hear how, if at all, policies have improved. I don’t have a clear call to action in mind, but I do know something needs to be done to mitigate future risks lockdowns present to people who depend on informal work.

I am guilty here of over-simplifying the subject. There’s an extensive body of academic literature and policy work that concerns itself with the rights, welfare and social and economic life of vendedores ambulantes, or mobile workers. It is too fixed and narrow a mindset to characterise all this work in a homogeneous way, as “vulnerable” work for example, or work only “vulnerable” or “marginalised” people do. And of course, I am guilty here of blurring my terms and mixing up quite different categories of work.

From very limited research, I see estimates which suggest street vendors represent from 5 to 10 percent of the total employed population across Latin American cities (Roever, 2010), although of course this is a historic estimate and partial indeed, since it only considers economic practices in cities.

Street vendors, and not chatarreros specifically, are a subject of policy.

Street trade precedes the informal-economy debate in Latin America. In some cities, selling or bartering in open-air plazas and broadly defined public spaces can be traced to pre-Hispanic times (). Ordinances and decrees regulating, prohibiting and enacting evictions have been documented as early as colonial times (; ; ). This is all beyond the scope of this blog-post. I don’t pretend to have the requisite knowledge to comment professionally on this topic or what needs to happen next.

What I do know is that we can’t afford to see South America go backwards. Income and wealth inequalities were already grotesque and deeply unfair, but some progress had been made in the last decade.

I do hope we can look to NGOs, if not politicians and governments, to try and offer some hope and relief, as well as a step-up, for people who are hungry, destitute and insecure.

CELs in Argenina is just one NGO of many trying to fight the good fight, but their focus seems to be on campaigning and protecting human rights. We also need to support local NGOs helping people in their communities.

I could do more and need to look into what the options are.

To start, I want to spread awareness, about the welfare of countless millions in need in a continent I love.


If you are interested in reading more of Andrew's blogs and other published work, do take a look here.