Of the thousands of people who are independent workers in Smokey Mountain Rubbish Dump, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, there are some 600 who are minors, of which many are very young children. This is an industry, where the workers live and work in deplorable conditions. It is a cynical example of sustainable development. These people recycle the city's rubbish, dumped there by garbage trucks throughout the day. The overpowering, acrid odour of grey smokey fumes blows across the dump, from which the place gets its name, and this can be smelt miles away, across the district of Steung Mean Chey, and sometimes in Phnom Penh itself. It is a grueling, dangerous, repetitive and unhealthy job. The dump is rife with disease, with many a festering carcass and moldy vegetables, but more seriously, unchecked chemical refuse, hospital debris, including medicines, blood samples and discarded syringes lying about on the ground.
The workers are continually in bad health, most without either proper masks, shoes or gloves to protect them whilst they work. They can't afford such luxuries. For the people who work there, it is their only job available, where they can earn low but consistent wages, with more respect and better than begging in the street. Many children workers come from large families, from the poverty stricken rural areas or are forced to work there as a result of Cambodia's endemic corruption. Whilst others may turn to prostitution or criminality to pay their way, this recycling work is in a sense more dignified, and workers are proud of their ability to earn a living, however meagre it is.
Children are sometimes the only, and certainly a vital source of additional income for a family, whose adults may be sick or dying. Some children also work to earn money to pay for their schooling. Corruption is at all levels of society. Whilst school should be free, because teachers earn less than a living wage, they often illegally charge their pupils, 15 cents of a dollar, per day. Poor families just can't afford this, so children have to earn their own wages not only to pay for their own food, but their education and to support their families. Whilst most detest their work and living conditions, there is a friendship and solidarity amongst children and other workers, with young children often working in groups or under the protective eye of a friend of relative.
Surprisingly there are workers recycling and sorting materials 24 hours a day, even during night-time. They work like miners, in otherwise near pitch-black conditions, using headlamps powered by re-chargeable batteries, which they rent for about a quarter of their daily earnings. Each group of recycling workers or families collect different materials from the dump; such as plastic, metals, wood, cloth, paper or vegetables, which are sold in bulk by weight, number or volume to go-betweens who take the articles to sorting houses on the dump's periphery, or for washing and cleaning before delivery to factories for the eventual recycling of the raw product.
A day's work typically brings less than a dollar per person, maybe one and a half to two dollars per family. They eat in the dump, often sleeping overnight amongst the rubbish, in the fumes, sometimes under plastic tarpaulins or in the open air. They live in bamboo shanties, sleeping as many as nine in a ten square meter hut, butting onto the dump, breathing in its foul reeking odor. But many squat on Smokey Mountain itself, because they can't even afford those meagre rents. There is not even one running water tap, nor any sanitation or other facilities for the workers of Smokey Mountain, who have to pay for water and food, provided by vendors who in turn make their living, providing an onsite fast-food service to recycling workers.