Vaccinate waste workers, too | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

Vaccinate waste workers, too

With COVID-19 still raging, the government has said it would speed up its vaccination efforts to protect communities against the disease. But the ongoing rollout of vaccines leaves out other frontliners that are highly exposed to the virus — those who work in the waste management sector.

The waste management sector is not limited to waste collectors and personnel of hauling companies. It also includes waste pickers, e-waste dismantlers, junk shop operators, itinerant waste buyers, street sweepers, and other sanitation workers employed by local governments and homeowners’ associations. Many of these workers have “no-work, no-pay contracts,” which leave them with no option to stay at home. Moreover, government lockdowns have disrupted the operations of junk shops and recycling facilities where waste collectors and pickers alike sell their kalakal for additional income.

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These workers are the backbone of solid waste management programs across the country. They make sure that many of the stuff that we throw away do not end up in dumpsites, through reuse, recycling, and composting activities. With their help, local governments generate savings from waste transportation and disposal costs, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plastic waste leaking into rivers and oceans.

As environmental frontliners, waste workers provide an essential service. They go around communities to collect discarded materials, which are often not sorted properly due to lack of effective waste management programs and too much problematic

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packaging that cannot be easily reused or recycled. While many of them practice safety protocols (physical distancing, frequent handwashing), these collectors, pickers, and recyclers expose themselves to higher risk of transmission compared to those of us who work from home. In performing their jobs, these frontliners in the waste sector are also putting their lives on the line. We need to ensure they are protected in order for them to continue protecting us.

Unfortunately, under the COVID-19 Vaccination Priority Framework of the

Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), the Priority Eligible A category excludes workers representing the waste management sector, even though the A4 sub-category covers frontline personnel in essential sectors.

In a letter addressed to the IATF-EID, pollution watchdog EcoWaste Coalition, along with several waste worker groups in Metro Manila and Cebu City, has called for the immediate inclusion of environmental frontliners in the COVID-19 Vaccination Priority Framework, because their work involves handling materials and surfaces that may be contaminated with the COVID-19 virus. Vaccinating waste workers will protect not only them and their families from the virus transmission, but also the communities they serve.

There have been initiatives by local governments to provide additional protection to waste workers. Some have distributed PPE and hygiene kits to these workers, while others have offered hazard pay. The private sector, including nongovernmental organizations, have provided similar forms of assistance to waste workers. Without vaccines, however, these initiatives are not enough to minimize their occupational health risks.

Before the pandemic, waste workers were already considered essential frontliners, as they directly contribute to improving community sanitation and reinjecting valuable discarded materials back into local economies. With the increased health and economic risks they face during the pandemic, it is urgent that we recognize their invaluable contributions and do the right thing—ensure that they are provided social protection measures: adequate protective equipment, income security, and vaccines.

We have better chances of bouncing fast from this pandemic if we ensure that no one is left behind, especially those who are putting their lives on the line so we can protect ours.

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Geri Matthew Carretero is the communications officer for the #breakfreefromplastic PH project. Archie Abellar is the PH Zero Waste coordinator for GAIA Asia Pacific. The BFFP PH project is a collaboration of #breakfreefromplastic members EcoWaste Coalition, GAIA Asia Pacific, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Health Care Without Harm Southeast Asia, and Mother Earth Foundation, in partnership with Oceana International Philippines.

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TAGS: Archie Abellar, Commentary, COVID-19 Vaccination, Geri Matthew Carretero, waste management workers
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