Mehmet: "I feel so bad when I do this job. I don't want to do this, it's not good for me."


Mehmet moved from Urfa to Istanbul with his family one year ago and has been working as a "rubbish collector" in the streets of Kadıköy ever since. Almost every day, the thirteen-year-old searches the rubbish containers for paper and plastic to sell it afterwards for a few liras. His brother Baran, three years younger, also earns money this way. Actually, both of them would like to see more of the city, go to school regularly and become a policeman or soldier later.

Illustration Mehmet

Mehmet sits cross-legged on the floor, his back against a low wall. His gaze rests on his cart; a metal frame with wheels, in which a large plastic bag is stretched. In it, he collects paper and plastic, which he takes out of the rubbish bins to sell for a few lira at the end of the day. Around him is the everyday hustle and bustle of Kadikoy: motorbikes rattle by, tourists dine in one of the many cafés, and waiters carrying glasses of beer hurry through the rows of tables.

Illustration of a waste collector
In 2019 about 19.500 tons of domestic waste were generated in Istanbul.

Over half a million waste pickers are working in Turkey. They play a crucial role in the recycling industry. Recyclable waste is picked up in the streets, mostly from the waste containers in the neighborhoods before the municipality's waste trucks arrive (to collect the waste from bigger businesses a municipal license is needed) .

The collected trash is sorted and sold to intermediate buyers, who have contracts with the recycling industry in the formal sector. Intermediate buyers support waste pickers by offering accommodation, networks, and equipping workers with hand carts (Empty handcarts weighs around 30 kg, a full one up to 150 kg). but exploit them at the same time by paying low salaries, not offering any insurances and common replacement policies.

The waste pickers of İstanbul: a case study - Sabanci University Research Database

Mehmet is 13 years old. He came to work in Istanbul eight months ago. He goes to school very irregularly and lives with his parents and seven siblings in Ferhatpaşa, in the Dudullu district. It is about an hour away from where he is sitting right now. He says that although they pay rent for their flat, it has no windowpanes in parts and the walls are unplastered. While his mother stays there with the two youngest sisters, the five older brothers and the father work in the streets of Kadıköy. They pull their carts through the residential neighbourhoods, searching the rubbish containers for recyclable material. The days are long: they usually start between eight and ten in the morning and work until one or two at night. They take what they collect to a depot where a trader pays them money, depending on the weight of the rubbish. "But the money we get is not adjusted for inflation. We can buy less for it than before."

Serhat, a friend of Mehmet’s, joins him for a few minutes. He says: "If I walk around, looking for container after container, I can earn between 500 and 800 liras a day. Someone who is permanently employed somewhere earns less than me." [Note: the minimum wage is just 5500 liras per month in autumn 2022] The 17-year-old has been regularly walking the streets for four years. He usually works in Istanbul for four months at a time and then leaves to his home village in south-east Anatolia to visit his family, before continuing. If he could, he would like to be a professional boxer. He used to be in a club and was pretty good. Then he says goodbye - he has to continue working.

The Child Labour Force Survey conducted in 2019 by the Turkish Statistical Institiute concluded that there are 720.000 of 16,4 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 that are working.
-15,9% of those were between 12 and 14 years old
-the majority of child workers were boys
-34,3% of child workers did notcontinue their education
-30,8% work in the agricultural sector and 45,5% in the service sector
-63,3% of child workers are being paid for their work while 36.2% work for free
US. Department of Labour: Bureau of International Labour Affairs - International Child Labor & Forced Labor Reports
TÜIK (Turkish Statistical Institut):

Mehmet says that many of his cousins and friends are in Istanbul doing the same job he does. Most of them come from near Urfa, a town in the south of Turkey close to the Syrian border.

They moved to Istanbul because there are few opportunities to earn money in their home country.

Mehmet lowers his head and looks at his hands resting in his lap: "I feel so bad doing this job. I don't want to do this; it's not good for me." He says he has had some bad experiences with people on the street. Sometimes he is threatened and beaten up by older men who are often also litter pickers and see the children as competitors. "But the people in the cafés here look out for us. That is why I usually stay here all day and just take things out of these bins. I earn less, but I'm safer here."

Mehmet's younger brother Baran sits down next to him. The ten-year-old pauses and looks at us curiously from his big dark eyes. He started working at the same time as Mehmet. He says that he actually likes Istanbul, besides the work. "There are things here that I have never seen in Urfa. This car, for example." He points to a passing BMW. The two brothers grin at each other. "Or this motorbike, that's cool." Baran says, pointing to a parked YAMAHA.

When asked if he has a dream, Mehmet first waves it off. Then he says, "I would like to see more. The Galata Tower and Kız Kulesi." [Note: Both are tourist attractions located in Istanbul on the European side of the city]. He would also like to become a policeman. The police are nice to them, he says. Baran agrees. He would like to become a soldier. When asked why, the two giggle. "He likes the guns," Mehmet says.

When they have time off, the brothers sometimes play football or gamble on their mobile phones. Or they go to the market to buy some food for the family.

Mehmet rises from his cross-legged position: "We have to move on now," he says. Then he starts pulling some cardboard that someone has discarded back out of the rubbish containers. Baran crushes them and stacks them in his trolley: everyday life for the two children.