As her two grandchildren sleep soundly in bed, 60-year-old Huy Nat mounts her bicycle equipped with a special trash bin and navigates the dark to collect garbage along a boulevard in central Phnom Penh.
She spent almost seven years carrying out her job alone. Now, she has company in the form of three-month-old pup, Srey Sar, who follows her as she sets off for work in the early morning. ‘’She [Srey Sar] gets up with me every morning. She sleeps nearby while I am cleaning the streets and waits for me until I finish my work,” said Nat.
Since her husband passed away many years ago, Nat is the sole provider for her youngest child and two grandchildren, aged two and four. Life is hard for the single mother, who has been living in a pagoda since she first arrived in Phnom Penh in 1983.
‘’I have been working as a trash collector since 2015. At first, I worked for Cintri for almost six years before moving to the new trash collection Mizuda Group Co, LTD last year,” said Nat. ‘’With this job, at least I can generate some income to support my child and two grandchildren after their mother passed away.”
As a trash collector, she wakes at 5am daily to start a long day collecting garbage from the capital’s streets. She finishes at about 4pm. She said it is a grueling task for a woman of her age, but has no choice as she needs to support her family.
‘’I need money to buy milk powder for my grandchildren, but sometimes I give them porridge instead because I do not have enough money and need to buy other basic needs,” said Nat.
Despite these challenges, she remains optimistic and is grateful to be a part of the city’s growing number of cleaning teams. ‘’For many, it is an underrated job, but still, I am happy with it and even happier to see the city clean and green, especially when I see people enjoy the beautiful environment along the roads,” Nat added.
Ang Vy is another trash worker for 800 Super company.
The 43-year-old relocated to the capital three years ago to find a job. She was struggling to make money farming in her home province of Takeo. With limited education, the only job Vy could find was a trash collector.
‘’It is a bit dangerous working as a trash collector because I have to work along the road most of the time. The cars and motos sometimes drive so fast without noticing us working there,” said Vy. However, despite this challenge, she added, ‘’I feel afraid of being hit but I have no choice.”
Vy currently lives in Phnom Penh with her husband in a small, rented room in a city slum. Ny said they have to work tirelessly to support her two children, who live with her mother in Takeo.
San Makara, 22, lives in Tuol Kork district. He said he has noticed fewer piles of garbage along the streets then before. He added while it is not perfect, there is a significant improvement, and he is excited to see that.
‘’Since the Phnom Penh administration added different trash companies to clean up the city, I can see that they [the companies] are paying more attention to doing their job. They mostly come and collect the garbage regularly and on time,” said Makara.
He added due to these achievements, garbage collectors should be appreciated as they are playing a significant role in helping the city clean up its act. ‘’Cleaning is not an easy job. They need to start early, and some work at night to collect the garbage on time. So, they should get more support and recognition from the public,” said Makara.
Another Tuol Kork resident, Khoun Phallen, has also noticed the improvement in the garbage collecting service. ‘’There is no abandoned garbage along the streets as before. If there is, workers come and collect within one or two days,” he said.
However, he noted, Phnom Penh residents should learn how to separate garbage so it does not look messy, and is safe for workers to collect.
According to a statement released on September 16 by Phnom Penh City Hall, trash must be separated. Organic or kitchen waste should be packed in black bags, dry litter in white bags, and hazardous waste, such as glass fragments and sharp objects, kept separately and collected each Sunday.
However, due to the improvements, the Phnom Penh administration has increased trash collection fees. They claim it is in response to the higher cost for three different companies to clean the city.
Noun Silyvann, 23, lives in Meanchey district. She was surprised to be hit with higher bills, but said it is acceptable as long as trash collection companies do their job well.
‘’For my house, I used to pay only 4,000 riels a month but as of now, it has increased to 10,000 riels. I personally think it is appropriate if they are collecting the trash on time. With this, I also acknowledge that collecting trash is a tough job and there are not so many people who want to do it,” said Silyvann.
It has been almost six months since the Phnom Penh administration added three new waste management companies to help Cintri clean up the city. They work across three different zones covering 14 districts.
800 Super covers Tuol Kork, Russei Keo, Sen Sok, Chroy Changva and Prek Pnov. Mizuda Group Co, Ltd covers Daun Penh, Prampi Makara, Dangkor, Por Senchey and Kambol, while Cintri and Everbright provide services in Chamkar Mon, Boeung Keng Kang, Meanchey, and Chbar Ampov.