Surrounded by mountains of trash at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey dump, Hoeun Sophon works 11 hours a day collecting unused rice and instant noodles that she can sell as pig slop to nearby farmers.
She’ll be happy to see May Day, or International Labor Day, this year, even though she isn’t sure exactly what it is.
“I do not know what International Labor Day means,” she said Tuesday, “but I just know that [Wednesday] is a holiday, and my daughters can come to help me.”
Hoeun Sophon is one of hundreds of workers at the dumpsite who will be working today, an international holiday meant to celebrate workers and give them a day of rest. For her, like many others in Phnom Penh and across the country, today will be like any other day—demeaning work for little pay.
“My job is to pick out pig food,” the 38-year-old mother said, staring off at bulldozers and scavengers crawling over the mountains of Phnom Penh’s waste. At her feet, a freshly opened garbage bag spilled household trash: A sack of rice, a half-eaten fish. As she stopped work to speak, a cloud of flies raced to the bag. “I do not think there is another job I can do,” she said.
Today her daughters will have the day off from the NGO where they go to school, allowing them to help boost her daily income from 7,000 riel (about $1.75) per day to 10,000 riel (about $2.50). For the past eight years Hoeun Sophon has been working at the dump, earning money for her daughters so that one day in the future she can move on.
She often complains to the gods because her life is confined to the dump. “But my poverty leaves me no choice,” she said.
She turned back to her bag of trash and began sifting through the uneaten rice and noodles, dumping the slop into a bucket to be sold nearby.
Nearly all of the dump’s workers have these specific roles. As a dump truck rumbles in and disgorges its trash, the first team of sorters moves in, raking the recyclable material away from the organic material.
Men, women and children dance around bulldozers as they begin to push and compact the trash. Every material—paper, plastic, metal, tubes, cloth—has its own group of sorters, who make their money through different means.
Plastic collectors like Khlouk Man, a 12-year-old with a quick smile and no shirt, sell plastic to the brokers on site. Khlouk Man sifts through the trash piles looking for soft plastic and hard plastic, earning about 1,000 riel ($0.25) per day. He passes his earnings on to his family, keeping 100 riel (about $0.02) for himself to buy food on the street.
“I’m happy to come, happy to work,” he said. “In the beginning, I didn’t like the smell. But now, the smell is no problem for me.” He also had not heard about International Labor Day.
Pan Heak, 35, has run her plastic brokering business at the dump for three years. She buys recyclable plastics and metals and sells them to buyers in Phnom Penh. She collects one ton of plastic every three days, earning 12,000 riel (about $3).
“I make enough money to support my family and my children,” she said, adding that all of them will be working today.
However, not all of those living at the dump accept it as their fate.
Sao Sarun, one of Hoeun Sophon’s daughters, is happy to help for now.
“I know tomorrow is the holiday, and that it is Labor Day,” she said. “I will come to help my mother.”
She held a wrinkling apple with a bite taken out of it and sifted through a pile of cans with a rod. Someday she will leave, she said, use the money from the dump and go to school.
“In the future,” she said, “I want to be a ‘big person’”—a government official.
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