Reclaiming the Discarded: The Politics of Labor and Everyday Life on Rio’s Garbage Dump

MILLER, Kathleen. Reclaiming the Discarded: The Politics of Labor and Everyday Life on Rio’s Garbage Dump. Thesis, Brown University, 2011

Abstract of the author :

 » Rio de Janeiro’s primary waste disposal site is not only the largest garbage dump in Latin America, but also the workplace of over 2,000 people known as catadores who retrieve and sell recyclables from Rio’s refuse. Based on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, this dissertation explores the relations, meanings, and practices created in and through the work of catadores as a form of non-wage labor increasingly predominant in Brazil and worldwide. I take catadores’ contradictory interpretations of their work as simultaneously « pure suffering » and « liberation » as a point of departure in my analysis. I see this tension as a way to understand how neoliberal capitalism has deepened social inequalities and eroded the livelihoods of many workers worldwide, while enabling new subjectivities, values, and political practices to emerge.

This study reveals that catadores have organized their work in ways that allow them to interweave labor and leisure and to modify the tempo and periodicity of their workdays in relation to other familial obligations and life concerns. In their work-history narratives, catadores often point to the autonomy, flexibility, and playfulness that they experience on the dump as reasons for coming or returning to the dump where, they assert, « no one orders them around » and « anything goes. » Catadores evade disciplinary techniques intended to shape them into a particular kind of worker, and many have been reluctant to participate in cooperatives or other efforts to formalize their work. However, many non-institutional forms of self-organizing and cooperative practice have flourished.

The dissertation concludes by suggesting that an anarchic spirit imbues the practices of catadores. This is not an overt, ideological anarchism. Rather, I understand the practices of catadores as a mode of being in the world and an orientation to life that avoids disciplining structures, emphasizes autonomy, blends work and non-work activities, and pursues a politics evasive of processes of institutionalization. Neoliberal capitalism and its impact on urban poverty have created Rio’s dump into a workplace for thousands. The stories of catadores show how this dump has also become a space that allows for other ways of fashioning work in relation to everyday life.  »

Gutmann, Matthew , Lutz, Catherine  , Townsend, Nicholas , Warren, Kay , Brown University. Anthropology


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