Of recyclers and rag men

Some who make their living on the streets are luckier than others

AFTER Argentina’s economy crashed in 2001, the ranks of informal workers grew along with those of the unemployed. In Buenos Aires, the capital, destitute citizens picked through rubbish to collect anything worth recycling, sold crafts on the pavement, charged drivers to “protect” their parked vehicles and cleaned car windscreens at red lights. Although the economy is now stronger, the scavengers and car-watchers have not gone away. But they have met with very different fates.

Trapitos01In 2013 the local government conferred formal status on cartoneros¸ workers who comb the city for cardboard and plastic which they sell to recyclers. It recognised 12 of the co-operatives into which they are organised and provided them with uniforms, health plans and cash incentives on top of their earnings from selling rubbish. “With the monthly bonus I can afford things for my family now that I couldn’t before,” says Gabriel Aquino as he loads plastic bottles into a battered pickup. “And I’m actually around to see them, because there are set hours.”

Other groups are seen as nuisances and are being dealt with brusquely. None is more despised than trapitos, or “rag men”. They wave people into parking spots and solicit fees for keeping cars safe. Hugo, a trapito who works in the chic Palermo Soho shopping district, says he never demands payment. If he spots people who look like thieves cruising the area on motorcycles, he alerts the police.

Yet he admits that not all trapitos are as scrupulous as he is. Some have damaged cars or even assaulted people who do not pay them. “They are intimidating people into paying to use a public space,” fumes Carmen Polledo, a councilwoman who belongs to the PRO, the party led by the city’s mayor, Mauricio Macri (a probable candidate in October’s presidentialelection).

Another target is street merchants who operate outside areas set aside for them. Their number has increased fourfold since 2011, according to a report by two chambers of commerce. Nearly 13,000 illegal stalls sell 678m pesos-worth ($77m) of goods a month. Unlike trapitos, they provide a service people want. It is their rent-paying competitors who dislike them.

Trapitos02- CartoneroTo date the government has had little success clearing scofflaw workers off the streets. Mr Macri, whose party lacks a majority in the city council, has failed in three attempts to pass a bill that would make it easier for police to arrest trapitos. On April 10th he re-introduced the measure yet again. Police operations to evict unlicensed merchants have provoked violent clashes and traffic blockades. In 2012 a judge issued an injunction allowing artisans to sell their wares on a three-block stretch of Peru Street, directly behind Mr Macri’s office.

Cartoneros, meanwhile, are setting their sights higher. Though conditions have improved, Jacquelina Flores of the Movement for Excluded Workers complains that the government has not replaced the co-operatives’ ageing fleet of lorries or adjusted the monthly bonus by enough to compensate for inflation, which was 40% in 2014. Scores protested outside the city’s environment ministry in March. The government has opened talks with them. Whatever the outcome, Buenos Aires’s cartoneros have already learned that formality pays.

The Economist – From the print edition: The Americas