Chariots of steel: Barcelona’s hidden army of scrap recyclers

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They are everywhere and yet they are almost invisible, living below the social radar as they crisscross the city pushing supermarket trolleys piled with metal tubing, old microwaves and empty beer cans.

The chatarreros are Barcelona’s itinerant scrap-metal collectors, and there are thousands of them. Most are undocumented migrants and so there is no official census, but Federico Demaria, a social scientist at the University of Barcelona who is conducting a study of the informal recyclers in Catalonia, believes there are between 50,000 and 100,000 in the region. About half are from sub-Saharan Africa; the rest are from eastern Europe, elsewhere in Africa and Spain.

They may be under the radar but they play a vital role in recycling, collecting an estimated 100,000 tonnes of metal a year in Catalonia alone, in a business that the Spanish recycling federation estimates is worth EUR10bn (GBP8.6bn) annually.

“What I’ve collected today is only worth about EUR3,” says Suleiman, resting on a bench en route to the scrapyard. A bed frame and bits of twisted metal are crammed into his shopping trolley. “Steel is worth less than 10 cents a kilo.”

Suleiman arrived from Guinea in 2005 and, although he has his residency papers, says it’s impossible to land a proper job. “Next month I’m going to Lleida [a city 100 miles west of Barcelona] to dig potatoes and pick cherries,” he says.

A chatarrero or scrap-metal collector in Barcelona,

Victor Mitjans, a recycling expert employed by the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, says: “The informal collectors are exploited by scrap merchants who, knowing these people are ‘illegal’, offer a price and it’s a case of take it or leave it.”

The waste belongs to the city, so collecting it is technically theft. “The city isn’t going to prosecute these people and most are prepared to turn a blind eye to their activities,” he says.

While the city pays private companies to collect and separate waste, the informal collectors are not rewarded for their work beyond what they receive for scrap. Recycling metal isn’t part of the formal system of collecting glass, paper and plastic.

“If you recognise their environmental service then they should be compensated for it,” says Demaria. Contracts for waste collection in Barcelona city are worth EUR2.3bn. The problem is that the migrants are trapped in a catch-22 due to Spanish immigration law: they cannot get a job because they are undocumented but they cannot get legal status without a job.

A chatarrero or scrap-metal collector in Barcelona,

To get legal residency you have to live in the country for three years, prove that you have had a fixed address for at least a year, show that you are learning the language and have a work contract for a minimum of one year. For many, it is impossible to fulfil these conditions, and even if they get legal status, they have to register as self-employed and pay a statutory monthly “quota” of EUR300, regardless of income, which they do not earn enough to pay.

The self-employed quota forces tens of thousands of people in the lowest-paid jobs, such as domestic workers and carers, into the informal market. They are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, because they have no way of claiming compensation for lost earnings from the state.

“What can you do? Steal? Sell drugs?” asks Ababacar Thiakh Sylla, who came to Spain from Senegal 23 years ago. “If you don’t want to do that the only option is collecting scrap or being a street vendor. It’s social exclusion, nothing more nor less.”

Sylla arrived from Dakar, Senegal, with a university degree that was not recognised in Spain, and so spent the next six years working illegally as a street vendor before obtaining a history degree from the University of Barcelona. He now works for a city-funded cooperative that helps undocumented workers find jobs.

Chatarreros in Barcelona.

A 2013 report by the International Labour Office estimated that only about a fifth of the 24 million people worldwide working in waste management are formally employed. The remainder are the 19-million-strong global army of informal waste pickers.

“These people provide this recycling service and they invest their whole life in it because it’s the only way they can survive,” says Lucia Fernandez, who helped to establish the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, speaking from her office in Montevideo, Uruguay.

“The chatarreros of Barcelona are at the bottom of a pyramid, with multinational capital at the top,” she says – something that has long been the case in the global south but is a new phenomenon in the north.

Demaria agrees. “It’s got a lot to do with inequality and we’re seeing a convergence between the north and the south because now in the global north we have a lot of people who live in extreme poverty,” he says.

Collected scrap is sorted

Fernandez says that, while governments spend millions on sophisticated waste collection services, in parts of Brazil waste pickers gather as much as 60% of what is collected for recycling.

“We need to see these people’s work not as a problem but as a solution, but to do that we need to change the system,” Fernandez says.

More and more Africans are making the perilous journey to Spain, where a tough and precarious existence awaits. “When people who have worked here, even as a waiter, go back to Senegal, what people see is someone who has made a success of life in paradise,” says Mamadou Saliou Diallo. “They’ve got their lives sorted. People sell their homes so that their children can cross the sea in a canoe.”

Diallo arrived 11 years ago, alone, aged 16 and determined to be a professional footballer. He did play for Sant Andreu when it was in the second division, but was dropped when new management took over.

As well as working for a bicycle hire firm, he has set up the NGO Diande frica, which helps fund the education of 500 children in his home town of Ziguinchor, south Senegal, while also running a day nursery and a jam-making project in the Raval district of Barcelona.

Chatarreros' tents in Barcelona.

For Karim, who in 2006 was among 30 people who set off from home in a small boat for a new life, Senegal had little to offer. After 15 days at sea they arrived in the Canary Islands, the longest and most dangerous of the African migrant routes to Europe.

In one week last October, nearly 500 migrants drowned attempting this crossing. Karim says he was never afraid, however. “Yes, it’s dangerous, but if things are bad in your country and your family is suffering, if your life is already a living death, at least you tried. Maybe you’ll drown but you can feel proud that you tried.”

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