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.
Karung gunis who buy cardboard from scavengers said that 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).
Clashes between locals and foreigners in the rag-and-bone trade are nothing new.
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.
Said Mr Tan, whose earnings had dropped because of foreigners entering the trade: “We local karung guni men follow a code. We don’t go into an area if another karung guni man is there. We respect his being there first and we go elsewhere … But the foreigners don’t care. They barge in. That’s when the fighting starts.”
Another local karung guni, Mr Ng, said: “Every other month, I see a new competitor. Most of the time it is a foreigner. Of course I get angry. This has been my rice bowl for more than 20 years” (“Fight over junk gets dirtier,” 4 Oct 2009).
Three years ago, in 2011, ST again reported on local karung gunis whose business had suffered partly because of increasing competition from foreigners (“No jump in sales for karung guni men,” 31 Jan 2011):
Some of these foreigners hold day jobs here and moonlight as rag-and-bone men, but Indonesians, for example, have also been known to come here on social visit passes to do such work…
Rag-and-bone men like him, known as karung guni men, are not regulated by any government agency, but their foreign counterparts are breaking the law by moonlighting in the trade.
The Ministry of Manpower said these individuals will have flouted the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and their work permit conditions.
The ministry said foreign workers are to work only for the employer and in the occupation stated in their work permits (emphasis mine).
It makes you wonder what the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has been doing all this while – 12 long years to be exact – to help Singaporeans who are trying to make an honest living toiling in a back breaking and thankless job.
Singaporean cardboard collectors are usually elderly men and women above 60 years old, many of whom belong to our much lauded “Pioneer Generation.”
The Pioneer Generation had contributed to Singapore’s nation-building in their younger days.
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.
(This blogpost first appeared on The Online Citizen)