Migration, Urban Poverty and
Underclass - Working in the Garbage
Hakan Acar, Seyhun Akar, Gürhan Akdemir, Ulaş Aksakalli, Yilmaz Alataş,
Hacettepe University School of Social Work
With its socio-cultural and economic indicators and its location, Turkey has
a contradictory social structure. At one hand, Turkey is one of the leading
economies in the world. IMF (International Monetary Fund) informed that
Turkey was the 21st biggest economy in 2004. It also indicated that Turkey
would be the 17th biggest economy in 2006. It means Turkey will have a
bigger economic power than Taiwan, Belgium or Switzerland.
In contrast to its economic growth, governments of Turkey still fight for
eliminating and reducing deep poverty rates. The State Statistic Institute
(2004) stated that the number of poor people in Turkey has reached to 20
million in 2003. 23% of families and 37.8% of pre-school children live under
People need to find new strategies to cope and manage their lives. In this
manner garbage collecting can be considered as a new employment field for
the new urban poor in Turkey. Today, thousands of people and their families
in Turkey have been involved in garbage collecting process as low-paid
This research aims to present one of the proofs of urban poverty and lack of
social regulations towards the new urban poor.
This study is a describing field research regarding the workers who work in
city garbage in Ankara, Turkey. Research was conducted with 51 workers in
2003. Data were gathered by using a questionnaire prepared by the
researchers. Researchers have used field observations and interviews as a
secondary data gathering method in order to provide a rich presentation of
At the end of the work, it is revealed that a majority of the workers in
Mamak Garbage are adolescent and younger adults and have extremely low
educational level. Significant numbers of the workers have immigrated to
Ankara within the last 6 months from rural areas of the hinterland of
Ankara. It is understood that these workers have been engaged in marginal
jobs before. The garbage workers show typical characteristics that apply to
members of the underclass. They have been living in poor conditions,
generally employed in junk jobs for short-term periods and they continue to
have little chance to develop their conditions. This can be characterized as
typical poverty cycle. The workers have to work in difficult conditions such
as long working hours and lower wages without social insurance.
Introduction: City Garbage as an Employment Field
The city garbage has been transformed into income-producing places in the
second half of the 20th century. The economic value has, in a sense, become
the indicator of the development level of the country or the region. Indeed,
the city garbage contains a large range of materials ranging from
electronics to furniture, plastics to iron and waste food, and surely many
of them still have economic yield.
With respect to garbage - as in many other fields - there are differences
between developed and underdeveloped countries. For instance, the recycling
proportion in developed countries is third times more than the
The city garbage has been a new employment field. Even if it is not possible
to give clear figures, it is a fact that many people and their families in
Turkey work in the garbage as garbage collectors and decomposers. In recent
years, these workers have attracted the attention of the public opinion and
there have been some news on the national press regarding the issue.
The following news, regarding the garbage collectors, had been posted in
Zaman Newspaper, on 14th July 2002. The children of low income families
spend their summer holidays by working. The economic crisis has increased
the number of these children. They earn money by collecting garbage in the
suburban district of Turgut Ozal in Manisa. They wake up at 5 am every
morning and cycle to the 2 km far away city centre on their bicycles bought
by the money they earned from the garbage. Radikal Newspaper announced on
28th November 2000 that collecting garbage had been in the interest of the
mafia. Garbage cocks! Now there is a mafia of garbage. Mafia gives
permission and the poor earns multiples of the minimum wage by decomposing
the garbage. Turkey is ahead of the UK in recycling. The latest news on the
garbage collector children was on Hürriyet on 6th April 2005. The explosive
material in the sacks carried by children who collect junk from the military
zones has blasted. The 7 wounded children were removed to private hospitals
around. Two of them then were removed to Istanbul University Faculty of
As it is seen, the income has been gradually increasing of the garbage
collection in the city centers as well as the city garbage and bearing in
mind the socio-economic conditions of the country, garbage collection has
increasingly been a rentable job for more people.
The Background and Social Dynamics of Working in the Garbage in Turkey
Transformation of Social Structure of Turkey: From Rural to Urban
Terms such as "working on the garbage" and "surviving on collecting the
garbage" are prevalent and took part in the public opinion since the end of
the 1990s. In order to understand the social dynamics of garbage collecting
and working on the garbage, one must analyze the transformation of social
structure in the last fifty years. The swift transformation of the social
structure in Turkey is well linked to the political movements in the 1950s.
This period started in the 1950s when the multiparty political system was
started. In this period, the state started to apply open market rules
instead of a state controlled capitalism. As a result of the changing
economic policy, investments of the private sector have become widespread in
the big cities especially in the Western Anatolia in order to maximize
The basic characteristic of capitalism is unequal development. In this
process, some regions became more attractive such as Istanbul, İzmir, and
their hinterlands, and thousands of people began to immigrate to these
attractive places in order to have a chance to be employed or/and to have
better living conditions. Cities such as Istanbul, İzmir, Mersin, and Adana
have been the main actors of this structure. In short, the transformation of
society during the 1950s caused mass immigration from rural areas to the
bigger cities (Atauz 1990: 5).
The urban population rose from 18.3% in 1945 to 18.5% in 1950, 22.1% in 1955
and 25.1% in 1960. The urban population nearly doubled only in 20 years of
time. The basic problem of this social transformation was that it did not
depend on industrial development, in a sense, as a result of a process
without the infrastructure. This process which can be called as the First
Migration Wave in the recent history of Turkey continued in nearly the same
speed until the 1970s.
The second big migration wave appeared during the 1990s. This one emerged
in the same way from the country to the city and even from the East to the
West, commenced as a result of the terror incidents in the Eastern and South
Eastern of Anatolia. The second migration wave started in 1990 and continued
with its full rhythm until 2000. Millions of people in these regions rushed
into the nearest city centers or directly to the metropolitan cities in
Southern and Western Turkey such as Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin, and Antalya.
The population movements in this process can be summarized as follows:
The population in Diyarbakir increased to 1,362,708 in 2000 which was
1,096,447 in 1990. Accordingly the increase rate is 2.173%. This figure is
2.862% in Bursa between 1990 and 2000. The population in Mersin rose to
1,651,400 in 2000 when it was 1,267,253 in 1990. In 2000, the population in
Antalya was 1,719,751 however it was 1,132,211 in 1990. Similar figures are
encountered for Ankara which attracts migration not only from the Eastern
Anatolia but also the Central Anatolia and many places of the Black Sea
region: the population of Ankara was 3,236,378 in 1990 and it rose to
4,007,860 in 2000. In this process, new districts with sheltered houses have
formed, where thousands of people live in Diyarbakir, Van, Adana and Mersin,
and the population of Mersin increased following the migration from 442
thousand to 1 million, of Tarsus from 177 thousand to 350 thousand, Adana
from 927 thousand to 2 millions, Diyarbakir from 380 thousand to 1 million,
Gaziantep from 600 thousand to 1 million. The dimensions of the social and
economic problems created by the migration have increased gradually and the
vast majority of the immigrants live in unhealthy conditions (TIHV 1996, p.
In this process the structure of the community has radically changed. Today
urban population rose to approximately 65% of the total population in Turkey.
Changing Economic Policies and Transition to Industrial Society: End of the
Social Welfare Regime and the Effects of Neo-Liberal Economy
The basic milestones of the economy-politic history in Turkey indicate three
periods. First of them is obviously the foundation of the Republic. The
foundation of the Republic also presents first steps of transition to
industrial society. In the early republican period, Turkey applied a
national developmental model which implied state capitalism. The state tried
to eliminate gaps and economic inequalities among regions. During these
years, the state was the first source of investment for the economic
The second period started during the 1950s when multiparty political system
was started. In this period, the state started to apply open market rules
instead of a strictly controlled state capitalism.
The last period started in 1980 when the army abolished the Parliament and
took the political power. During the military period, Turkey has been
connected with international markets and started to integrate with the
global capitalist system. Turkey adopted a liberal economic development
model which depends on the international loans in this process. In these
years Turkey met IMF and international finance institutions (Acar 2005). In
short, the 1980s can be characterized as the substitution of welfare regime
through neo-liberal policies. This process has been also visible in many
other parts of the world.
As it is known, welfare state regimes aim to distribute national income
equally among population groups. After the collapse of welfare state regime,
governments have applied neo-liberal economic policies. The process started
in UK and USA by Reagan and Thatcher Governments.
Reaganism and its twin sister, Thatcherism, created fortunes among the
highly educated, but in the middle and working classes, they generated
anxiety, insecurity and disparities. Tax cuts, the slashing of safety nets
and welfare benefits, and global free trade unleash the powerful engines of
capitalism that go on a tear. Factories and businesses open and close with
startling speed. As companies merge, downsize and disappear, the labor force
must always be ready to pick up and move on. The cost is paid in social
upheaval and family breakdown. Deserted factories mean gutted neighborhoods,
ghost towns, ravaged communities and regions that go from boom to bust.
Conservatism is being confronted with its own contradictions for unbridled
capitalism is an awesome destructive force (Schwartz 1999).
By the effect of the economic policies implied, the balance in income
distribution flustered in the cities and big gaps have notably occurred
between income groups. Moreover, people who immigrated to the city centers
could not develop strategies to adapt the city life and families have come
to the point of dissolution, owing to the interruption of the links with the
towns. There are two main reasons of this situation. First, the aim of full
employment target was denounced when the comprehension of social state was
substituted with the liberal economic model.
With neo-liberal policies, which have been dominant in the process of
economic globalization, the labor market has radically changed. The
maximization of profit became prior for global market even for social
organizations. This caused increasing unemployment rates and rising poverty
rates. Moreover, the need for unskilled labor has declined as a result of
technological developments. Indeed, globalization of economy and neo-liberal
strategies started to change the structure of societies.
The effects of neo-liberal policies can be seen in any part of the world.
For instance, the economic gap between the poorest and the wealthiest groups
in world has become 1/82 while it was 1/30 in the 1960s. Today, 30 million
people die in every year because of hunger in World (Başkaya 2000, p. 124).
As it is seen, with the collapse of the welfare state paradigm and the start
of the neo-liberal policies, the balance among the social classes has been
lost. This has caused the gaps in society get deepened in every single area.
The new economic understanding has viewed public services as commercial
goods and replaced the term citizen with consumer. Therefore, meeting of
the needs such as better education, healthier environment and housing has
become the rights of the ones with enough money. In fact, relinquishing of
the social welfare state has caused some population groups to be sacrificed.
Furthermore, the new economic system has created a new cast system by its
regulations which make the poor stay poor. Şengül (2001: 43) explains this
as the following:
While the post Second World War period, which was determined by the
Keynesian policies, is described by some researchers as the era of intra-national
projects, the post 1980s period is described as the era of bi-national
projects. While the former provides for the groups on the margins keep
included in the social project, the later excludes some segments of the
society. Thatcher and Reagan have become the leaders of such bi-national
projects and made the exclusion of the economically disfunctioning parts of
the society as 'parasitic' and 'useless'. In a sense, the bi-national
projects have gained the support of the middle class by convincing them that
the reason why they paid high taxes was the 'parasitic classes' and the
welfare state expenditures for them.
In this process, it has become almost impossible for the individuals who
receive education in state schools with lower quality, cannot learn a
foreign language, study in village schools which are full of incapacities in
every sense of the word to find a good job. It is clear that the neo-liberal
change has been welcomed by only a small minority in a country which is
still developing and in which one third of it's population lives under
poverty line, namely Turkey.
The neo-liberal regulations in Turkey - and many Latin American and Asian
countries which look alike structurally - have intensified the gap between
the rich and the poor. This has caused the development of new social class
Neo-Liberal Society and Underclass: Emergence of Garbage Workers in the case
The period in which the neo-liberal approach dominated policies can be
defined as the emergence of new poor of urban. It clearly presents the rise
of the new class. Scholars call this a "underclass. Myrdal in 1963,
described underclass as the workers who are forced out of a new economy,
and now often called postindustrial (Cited in Martin 2004). Some other
authors also defined underclass as the persons who have hopeless life
conditions and little chance to improve their life quality (Şengül 2001:
In fact, underclass is a concept which is used to describe the poor and
uneducated masses that do not have the hope for a better life. As a result
of the relinquishing of the social welfare state and the goal of full
employment, the limits of life have been determined sharply for these
classes. In a social structure where the neo-liberal values are dominant,
areas of work for the underclass are determined to a great extent. The
underclass may only work in temporary and low paid jobs which may only make
them survive and do not give them the opportunity to develop. Many authors
define such jobs as junk jobs.
Dawson (1996) also stated that wealth is rapidly polarizing, most people are
facing the prospect of insecure junk jobs and sinking incomes, and the well-to-do
are effectively seceding from society by walling themselves into privately
policed fortress communities (Dawson, 1996). As Bihagen (2004) noted that
there are many terms used to describe junk jobs such as the below:
Within sociology, and even within economics, there are several ways of
distinguishing between good and bad jobs, where bad jobs have been
described as dead-end jobs (e.g., Melamed 1995; Rosenfeld 1992; Silverstone
& Towler 1984; cf., Kanter 1977), Mc jobs (Ritzer 1998), junk jobs (cf.,
Esping-Andersen 1990), ghetto jobs (e.g., Truss 1993; Lowe 1987; Hakim
1978), nonstandard jobs (e.g., Kalleberg, Reskin & Hudson 2000), and jobs
within the secondary labor market (Piore 1969). A common denominator for
these terms is the lack of career opportunities within such jobs although
low wages and poor working conditions are characteristics often included as
well (see Bihagen, 2004).
As it is seen, a new class in society called underclass grew by changing
attitudes and social policies. This process also affected vulnerable groups
in Turkey. One of the proofs is the growing unemployment rates and poverty.
In the process of mass migration from rural to urban and transition to open
market policies in Turkey, it is clear that families who immigrated to
cities to escape from poverty, terror and unemployment fell into
hopelessness once again. Another reason why the new citizens of cities
cannot cope with the city life is the clearly changing employment market.
Employers do not need the unskilled labor anymore. As the people immigrating
to cities with the second migration wave are generally uneducated and have a
low chance to be employed, this minimizes the opportunity for these people
to be employed.
The economic policies radically effected lives of people and create huge
gaps between population groups.
Today, Turkey still fights for eliminating and reducing deep poverty rates.
The State Statistic Institute (2004) stated that the number of poor people
in Turkey has reached to 20 Million in 2003. 23% of families and 37.8% of
pre-school children live under poverty line. According to the State
Statistic Institute, -SSI- (2004), Turkey is a country which has the worst
inequitable distribution of income in comparison to the EU countries
including the accession ones. The SSI stated that the poorest 20% of the
population receive only 6 percent of the total national income while the
richest 20% of the population receive 48.3% of the total income.
By the result of this social transformation summarized with its main
features, cities filled with individuals who have low education level, live
at suburban areas and do not have a place at formal employment market. Thus,
unregistered economy has increased and reached to 66 % of grant total volume
of economy according to official figures (DİE 2002, p. 254-257).
New residents of the city had had to create new informal employment fields
to survive. Gathering garbage and working at garbage was become one of
founded new employment fields.
Goal and Method of the Research
The goal of the study is to describe working and living conditions of
garbage workers in Ankara. The research also aims to reveal the effect of
mass migration from rural to urban, urban poverty and neo-liberal policies
on working in garbage.
The research was conducted by using quantitative research design. The
research is a descriptive field research.
Research was conducted with 51 workers in 2003. Data gathered by using
questionnaire which formed by the researchers. Researchers also used field
observations and interviews as a secondary data gathering method in order to
provide a rich presentation of results.
In the research, questionnaire was used as a data collection tool.
Questionnaire consists of 65 questions and was prepared as to show socio-economic
characteristics of the workers in Mamak Garbage. Additionally, interviews
made with person from Ankara Metropolitan Municipality and recycling factory
in Mamak Garbage Area to understand the structure and administration of the
Within the scope of the research, total fifty-one workers were interviewed.
Workers who participated to the process of information collecting were
informed and the interviews were started after their approval. It was found
that there are 75 workers working in garbage, seven of these workers refused
to participate to the research, others could not been reached because of
Data about the Mamak Garbage Area gathered by observations and interviews
with persons from Ankara Metropolitan Municipality and garbage recycling
factory in Mamak Garbage Area.
Mamak Garbage; was established in the area where a little far from District
of Ege in the County of Mamak within the borders of the city of Ankara.
According to the Law About Management of Metropolitan Municipalities,
administrative government of Mamak Garbage belongs to Metropolitan
Municipality of Ankara. Mamak Garbage is a very wide area in that garbage
wastes collected from central counties of Ankara were stored and appraisable
objects within these garbage wastes were collected by garbage decomposers.
In Mamak Garbage, there are two different kinds of working in two different
areas for recycling of garbage. In first garbage island, there is a garbage-refining
factory which belongs to Municipality but operated by a private company.
This factory works by modern garbage refining and processing machinery. The
factory was hired for 40 years to a subcontractor company. This
subcontractor company gets active with a garbage transformation company
whose patent is in Switzerland as partner. Garbage of the counties which are
at relatively higher economic level of Ankara, are come to these
establishments (Çankaya, Bilkent, Yenimahalle and Konutkent). Garbage
collected in a store, are processed in the establishments by bands. At every
band, a worker decomposes one type of material. In these establishments,
there are two shifts; a group of workers begin work at 09.00 a.m., quit at
18.00 p.m.. Again, a group of workers begin work at 20.00 p.m. and quit at
06.00 a.m. Workers who work for 9 hours daily work for minimum wage. Workers
in this establishment take minimum wage and their insurances are processed.
In other garbage island, there are people who collect and decompose garbage.
In this area, workers work as groups and every group has a leader. Every
group deals with decomposing a separate material. Groups sell waste
materials collected during a week to subcontractor company by their leaders;
subcontractor company sells them to recycling factories. Money taken for
selling material to subcontractor company is shared among group members.
But, group leader takes more money from this share. While a part of workers
work in this field of garbage live in close settlement areas, another part
of them live in barracks within garbage.
Socio-Demographic Characteristics of the Workers
Socio-demographic characteristics of the workers interviewed are given below:
39 and over
1: Socio-Demographic Characteristics of the Workers
The basic socio-demographic characteristics of the workers can be summarized
More than half of the interviewed workers (58.8 %) are at age of 19-28.
Important part of the workers (60.8 %) is married. Most of them have
extremely low education level (60.8 % have only primary school degree).
Interestingly the ratio of them who are 40 years and over old is ¼.
More than half of the workers were born in Ankara. The rest of them
indicated they were from hinterland of Ankara (especially from villages of
Ankara). More than half of the workers (% 52.1) migrated to Ankara after
1999. More interestingly, more than ¼ of workers said that they came to
Ankara within the year of 2003. According to workers own expressions the
basic aim of the immigration to Ankara clearly depends to rural poverty and
hope to live better.
There is nothing to do there (in the village). I have a family. I have to
earn money and meet my children's needs. (25 years old worker)
The data clearly match with the term underclass. Firstly the workers have
poor educational level. All of them has rural origin and live in poverty. It
can be said that the workers are in a typical bereavement loop. It is
obvious that the workers are typically uneducated and unqualified as
profession and moreover they could not find a place in employment market by
their qualifications. Clearly there is little hope to have better conditions
for them in urban life where neo-liberal values dominated. Additionally,
ages of the workers also indicate youth exclusion in Turkey. As young and
uneducated persons they have to work in marginal sectors, as a junk worker
to manage their lives. Today, unemployment rates become most important
problems of governments since 2000s. According to State Statistics
Institute (2003) 10.5% of total population is out of work force because of
small size of labor market. Furthermore most of unemployed persons are young
citizens including young persons with a university degree. The State informs
that almost ¼ of young people with university degree are unemployed.
The workers generally live with their families in poor districts of Ankara.
All of them stay in rented houses with negative conditions such as lack of
water, lack of healthy housing conditions.
Findings about Working Life
Engaging to the sector
An important part of the workers (25.5%) was unemployed before they began to
work in garbage. 17.6% of workers expressed that they worked at
constructions before; 23.7% of them said that they worked as security guard
and worker in textile sector. They generally worked at marginal jobs before
they began to work at garbage.
How the workers involved to garbage collecting sector? This is an important
question. The answer tells us the story of immigration and hopelessness.
According to data gathered, most of the workers (88.2%) expressed that they
found this job via an acquaintance or their relatives. The ratio of workers
who said that they found the job by their own is only 11.8 %. During the
data collection process research team strongly observed that there is
regional network in garbage collecting sector. Many of the workers have the
same regional origins and they have strong solidarity among each other. If
there is an open position in garbage, they are discovering a person from the
same region (same city, village or if it is not possible same region) to let
The data revealed that involving the garbage collecting sector consist of
three phase including immigration, looking for a job in labor market,
hopelessness and involving the garbage collecting sector. The figure below
will show the structure.
Duration of Working in Garbage
Most of the workers (62.8 %) have been working at garbage for 1-3 months.
More than 1/3 of interviewed workers expressed that they have been working
for 1 month or less. There is only one (1) worker who works at garbage more
than 3 months.
As mentioned before, working at garbage has lower social statue in modern
society. It is natural that most of interviewed workers (70.6 %) expressed
that they do not satisfied with their job and workplace. Moreover, most of
these workers (88.2 %) noted that the job is dangerous. Similarly, 62.7 %
of the workers indicated they are looking for a better job at the same time.
It is seen that an important part of the workers feel indisposed for their
job. In other words, workers think that their environment/society perceives
working at garbage negatively. Most of the workers (80.4 %) expressed that
societys perception is not good or too bad. Because of this, they are
trying to find a better job and leave the garbage as soon as possible.
The subcontractor company pays only minimum wage which is less than 300
USD per month. It is clear that it is not an adequate or acceptable wage to
survive in urban conditions. Moreover, the workers have no social insurance.
They are not even registered to the social security system. Only two workers
who are working in a chief position are members of a trade union; on the
other hand 88.2 % of the workers expressed, that they want to be member of a
It is revealed that the workers have to work during long working hours in
difficult circumstances. Workers daily working hours are approximately 10
hours. On the other hand, it is seen that workers have not any protective
clothes except gloves, so that their working conditions and clothes are far
away from hygienic conditions.
The data revealed that working in the garbage can be defined as junk job.
The working conditions in garbage are completely brutal. The working
conditions can be compared with early capitalist periods in France or
England. The workers have no social rights in Garbage. In case of illness
they can be fired easily. There is a huge hierarchy between workers and
chiefs. During the research period it is observed that most of the workers
tend to be silent and avoid talking about working conditions and
relationships with subcontractor company and chiefs.
The company, aware of living conditions of the workers. The garbage is last
chance for them and if a worker does not want to work in garbage anymore it
is very easy to find new one.
This research held in Mamak Garbage of Ankara displayed important data about
basic characteristics of the workers at Mamak Garbage. Within the scope of
the study it is seen that all of interviewed workers have low educational
level, most of them migrated to Ankara within past couple of years and did
not find a place in formal labor market. It is understood that workers do
not satisfy with working at garbage and feel excluded with perception of the
It is observed that workers are uninformed about risks and do not have any
protective caution. It is obvious that workers who have no social security
will be helpless when they face with health problems. It is seen that a lot
of workers in garbage search for another job at the same time.
According to the results of the research, it can be said that workers at
garbage are one of the poorest groups of the city. It is understood that
people who came to metropolitan areas via migration move away from
integration possibilities with the city.
While results of the research show basic characteristics of the workers at
garbage, it stresses the necessity of examining this matter with the
dimensions like people health, human rights and working conditions. To make
workers, who have not any social right conscious of especially health risks
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