Friday, 12 December 2014

When Cardboard Is Gold

I keep that $2 note in my wallet's coin compartment. This way, I'll not spend it by accident

Sure, the amount is small change by today's standards. Yet, this $2 note holds special meaning for me.

It was earned through sweat, and very nearly tears, and it reminds me of how, for some people, money is earned with much difficulty.

Toiling in the sun, picking up things that people discard, that is how they make a living.

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Elderly woman dies after being hit by bus at junction of Admiralty Rd and Marsiling Lane

Toon Ngee Suan would occasionally wait by the junction of Admiralty Road and Marsiling Lane while his elderly mother collected cardboard boxes and sold them at a recycling centre.

It was the same routine yesterday morning, with the 64-year-old retiree standing at his usual spot. But his mother did not turn up. Instead, someone went to him, informing him of an accident involving her down the road and out of sight.

Ching Guan Eng, 86, died after she was struck down by a school bus in Marsiling Lane. The Singapore Civil Defence Force said they received a call at 8.45am about a woman trapped under a 40-seat bus.

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Let's do more to support elderly cardboard collectors
NAMELESS: Few care or notice elderly cardboard collectors. More should be done to help these senior citizens

I was staring at the scene where the body of Zheng Yuan Ying, 86, lay pinned under a bus on Wednesday morning. She was killed while making her way to a cardboard-collection point in Marsiling Lane.

It is a grim reminder to me that a job, even as mundane as collecting discarded cardboard, comes with risks.

Barely 20m from where Madam Zheng's body was, three elderly women appeared oblivious that one of their own had been struck down by a vehicle.

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Elderly cardboard collectors: Why do they take the risk?
An elderly woman pushes a trolley piled with cardboard. On the morning of Nov 12, another elderly woman was killed in an accident in Marsiling while on her way to a cardboard collection point. PHOTO: The New Paper / Zaihan Mohamed Yusof

Madam Zheng Yuan Ying, 86, was killed this morning (Nov 12) while making her way to a cardboard collection point just up the road on Marsiling Lane.

It’s a grim reminder to me that every job comes with risks. Barely 20m away from where Madam Zheng’s body rested, three elderly women appeared unaffected that one of their own had been struck down.

In the heat, they pushed their carts gingerly along the same road hoping that motorists would give them a wide berth.

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Elderly poor need more than just a 'bonus'
An elderly rag and bone woman picking up a cardboard box outside Geylang Bahru food centre

The Silver Support scheme is a good initiative which should be improved progressively to help the elderly poor meet their day-to-day needs without worrying that they have not enough to get by.

I met Dr Alexandre Kalache back in 2011 and something he said then has stuck with me ever since as Singapore grapples with issues related to the rising number of old people. The former head of ageing issues at the World Health Organisation pointed out that while Singapore had done exceedingly well in increasing life expectancy, it had miles to go in helping its elderly age with dignity.

Men and women in their 70s being forced to clean tables at hawker centres, scrub apartment blocks or slog in the hot sun as security guards were not signs of "active ageing", said the epidemiologist, who drafted two manuals on the issue and spent 15 years crafting ageing policies at the WHO.

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No job protection for elderly cardboard collectors and karung gunis

On 2 September, the local Shin Min Daily News picked up the story of a Chinatown cardboard collector that first appeared online.

The 67-year-old woman, who has been collecting cardboard in Chinatown for around 18 years, lamented that more Chinese nationals have been competing with her for discarded cardboard of late, drawing up “turfs” that are off limits to her and even threatened to hit her. These foreign cardboard collectors, according to the old lady, appeared to be less than 60 years old.

According to the karung gunis who buy cardboard from scavengers, the foreign cardboard collectors hold other low paying jobs and are moonlighting for extra income. Some may not even have a work permit (“阿嫂投诉:中国‘加龙古尼’ 抢纸皮还要打我,”Shin Min Daily News, 2 Sep 2014).

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We will be starting our Project Off The Street initiative soon at Chinatown

Six volunteers will join the first initiative to assist our elderly to collect cardboards and sell them at the collection point.

We also hope to better understand their lifestyle and predicament as they age.

Many elderly Singaporeans are unable to retire comfortably here as they couldn't accumulate enough CPF while they are working when young.

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That morning, her son, Toon Ngee Suan, 64, was waiting by the junction of Admiralty Road and Marsiling Lane for her to return

An elderly woman was pinned underneath the bus and died while her son waited to fetch her home a short distance away, not realising what has happened to his mother.

The poor lady, Ching Guan Eng, 86, was going about her rounds, as she did everyday picking up cardboard boxes.

She would then bring the cardboards to a recycling centre to sell them.

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After 4pm and over the next two hours before the karung guni man called it a day, elderly cardboard collectors began trickling in from the two roads that lead to the collection point. Bathed in the golden rays of the evening sun, the old folks pushed their cartful of flattened cardboard slowly forward with a doggedness that belied their frail and scrawny appearance.

There were both men and women plying their trade. Their shriveled skin, withered arms and grey hair are telling signs of their advanced age. Ah Lan, whose husband is an amputee, is 86; auntie Aw, who came all the way from Whampoa to Toa Payoh to sell her cardboard, is 77; another white-haired woman who is all skin and bones, spoke of attending a briefing for the “Pioneer Generation” on the coming Saturday; and there’s 70-something uncle Lee, who is hard of hearing and had to be repeatedly reminded of an approaching lunch event organized by a group of good Samaritans.

For every kilogram of cardboard, the elderly get 10 cents in return. The old folks consider this an attractive rate in comparison to what other karung gunis pay – sometimes as little as 5 cents per kilogram of cardboard.

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PRCs compete with local elderly woman for cardboards.

"The 67-year-old woman, who has been collecting cardboard in Chinatown for around 18 years, lamented that more Chinese nationals have been competing with her for discarded cardboard of late, drawing up “turfs” that are off limits to her and even threatened to hit her."

"Singaporean cardboard collectors are usually elderly men and women above 60 years old, many of whom belong to our much lauded “Pioneer Generation.”

"Today, in their sunset years, a group of them are earning 10 cents or less for every kilogram of cardboard they collect, in the same nation they helped to build."

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Clashes between locals and foreigners in the rag-and-bone trade are nothing new
Did you know that karung gunis have “turfs” that they adhere to?

As early as 2002, the Straits Times reported on foreigners encroaching on the “turf” of local karung gunis, causing the latter’s earnings to dwindle by up to 40% (“Karung guni men and foreign workers in tussle over trash,” 13 Oct 2002).

Many karung gunis then joined a newly formed Waste Management and Recycling Association to get their voices heard.

Mr Toh, who had 60 karung gunis working for him, said: “We hope the association can liaise with the Ministry of Manpower to help us deal with these illegal foreign workers” (“Karung guni men ally with recycling firms,” 28 Sep 2002). It seems that Mr Toh’s hopes were dashed. In 2009, the problem was again reported in ST.

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Foreigners Tell Old Lady Cardboard Collector That Sporeans Have To Depend On Them

We followed this 70-year-old elderly woman round Chinatown this morning during our Project Off The Road initiative and realised collecting cardboards is not as easy as it looks.

One has to be fast and be an early bird so that the best worms are eaten before other collectors arrive.

Nowadays, PRC collectors also came into the picture and they have compete aggressively with our local collectors.

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25 years a cardboard collector
tired - cardboard collector - resting - public

She works 16 to 17 hours a day and earns barely $10. At night, she sleeps on cardboard under a carpark ramp.

Passers-by would think she is single, lonely, poor and homeless. But in reality, Madam Ye, who is in her 70s, has a husband, four children, a grandchild and a HDB flat in Sembawang.

Why does she collect cardboard and sleep in a carpark then? She told Youth.SG in Mandarin: "This is how I get by. I don't want to be a burden to people, I don't want to be waiting for my children's next pay cheque or take for granted that they will give me an allowance."

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Karung Guni: The Rag and Bone Men
A karung guni cart

The practice of Karung guni is common in Singapore. Its practitioners are a modern form of rag and bone men that visit residences door-to-door. They can either walk along corridors (if that particular HDB estate has a covered carpark) or for certain HDB estates where the carpark is right under the HDB blocks, walk through the carpark downstairs honking a horn. However, around landed properties, they may drive around in a lorry with a horn attached to it, instead of going door-to-door. They make visits in carts, collecting old newspapers and other unwanted items. These will be resold at specialized markets and eventually recycled or reused. "Karung guni" is a Malay phrase for gunny sack, which was used in the past to hold the newspapers. The karung guni men would haul the heavy sacks on their backs as they walked their rounds to do the collection. Today, most of them use a hand truck instead.

These people can be distinguished by their use of horns or (rarely) hand bell and shouts of "karung guni, poh zhua gu sa kor, pai leh-lio, dian si ki..." ("Rag and bone, newspapers and old clothes, spoilt radios, televisions" in Singlish and Hokkien) when making their rounds. Depending on the person, a nominal fee is paid for the quantity of newspapers or unwanted items sold.

The karung guni industry is made highly profitable due to the dense urban nature of Singapore, where hundreds of public housing Housing Development Board apartment units are located in one block, with often a dozen blocks in each housing estate. This gives the karung guni men large access to sources of scrap. There are reported stories of rag-to-riches, karung guni men who have become millionaires just from the karung guni business. Today, however, competition is usually too great.

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Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?
This is where the road ends for the collectors. They have been coming here for years. The middle man will collect, weigh and pay the collectors. And then a disposal truck would come and ferry the boxes away

While I often chat with them when I meet them, I haven't gone so far up the value chain to know the middle man and the whole set-up. I was most happy to join a group of young Singaporeans from Youth Corp on a project they initiated - to get first hand insight into the lives of elderly cardboard collectors: what motivated them to do what they do; and the challenges they face. The youngsters devoted their weekends over a 2-month period to befriend the cardboard aunties and uncles on the streets in the Jalan Besar area, and spent time talking to them to understand what they are going through in life.

They shared with me that they were surprised by their own findings! The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true. There will be some who do this as their main source of income. Some do so to supplement what they have. Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home. They do this to remain independent, so that they can have dignity and not have to ask their families for help.

For members of the public, the simplest thing that one can do for these people is to talk to them to understand them. More often than not, people make judgements without finding out the facts of the matter, in this instance, the stigma surrounding cardboard collectors. But of course, for those who genuinely need financial help because they are unable to find other jobs to supplement their income from cardboard collecting, the government will do what it can to help these people. If you know of individuals who need help, do let us know.

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Collecting Cardboards from "a form of exercise" to "protecting our environment"

Saw 70 year old Mdm Lim from Blk 235 struggling to move 32kg of old newspaper for recycling. Good thing we ran into her and helped her with the load. Found out that with her bad knees and unsteady gait, she actually fell and had a slight bruise on her forehead just before we came across her. Fortunately she wasn't severely injured. Asked why she expended so much efforts to recycle these items, she insisted she wanted to do her part "to protect our environment." Her single-mindedness towards a worthy cause is deserving of a salute! Advised her to not over exert and to let us know in future when she needed help with these items. Thank you, Mdm Lim, for being an inspiration and a role model!

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