Faculty & Research -Protecting Environment or People? Pitfalls and Merits of Informal Labour in the Congolese Recycling Industry

Protecting Environment or People? Pitfalls and Merits of Informal Labour in the Congolese Recycling Industry

This study on informal labour in the waste management shows that decisions of voiceless people cannot be reduced to being rational or desperate choices, but that they reflect a careful elaboration of currently available options and strategies for the future.

The relevance of informal labour is too often ignored

Informal labour is a widespread phenomenon worldwide and many developing economies report over 80 per cent of employment in the informal sector. In many developing countries, informal workers collect and sort waste, providing a valuable and much needed service to society. However, informal waste collectors are also socially ostracised as in many cultures this work is considered unclean, not only physically but also symbolically.

The postmodern writer Bauman (2004) uses wasted lives as a metaphor for the role informal workers and other marginalised persons are perceived in today’s societies.  “Bauman (2004) described wasted lives as supposedly redundant, useless persons who have been excluded from society as they do not earn enough income to be part of the prevailing consumption culture, and who lack any hope to redeem themselves” (page 820).

This is the case in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, where we conducted our research. Here, waste collectors are often people who recently moved from the conflict-ridden countryside to the capital in search of safety and a better life. In the absence of better work opportunities, they join the ranks of waste pickers, collecting household and business waste against fees. They sort out valuable waste such as metals and plastics and dispose of the remaining waste either by transporting it to a landfill outside the city or by dumping it illegally in the city. For many waste collectors the income from collection fees and sold recyclable materials is just sufficient to enable survival.

While metal waste is exported to China, plastic waste is recycled in Kinshasa by various medium-sized enterprises. We interviewed informal waste pickers, intermediaries as well as managers and workers at all of Kinshasa’s formal recycling businesses, in order to learn about their working conditions and how informal labour contributes to the city’s failing waste management system.

A complex picture emerges: On the one hand, all respondents recognise health and safety risks of waste pickers, the low income of formal and informal workers in the waste management sector and the problem of illegal waste dumps all over the city, which block drainages resulting into dangerous flooding during wet season. A manager of a recycling business is concerned about how some informal workers operate: “What will push us to stop buying materials from them, because of involvement of children, they do not know how to handle wastes, they touch wastes, without washing their hands they eat, and this is dangerous” (page 825).

On the other hand, without informal waste collectors, the waste management system would break down completely and thousands of informal workers and their families would lose their income. An informal worker describes the situation as follows: “We go out in the morning to collect and sort waste for factories. Many of us do this work that helps us to live as there are no other jobs opportunities in the city, what can we do, it is a survival strategy for us poor” (page 825).

Informal and formal waste workers agree that rather than radically changing the waste management system, more resources are needed such as better and affordable transportation of waste to landfills, enabling informal waste collectors to sell directly to recyclers rather than selling to intermediaries, who buy plastic locally and sell it to recyclers. If collectors want to benefit from the better prizes from the recyclers, they have to organise and pay for the transportation. They are also responsible for transporting waste to landfills, which is why so much waste is illegally dumped. Moreover, more effort is needed to encourage better health and safety habits among waste collectors.

Informal labour poses an ethical dilemma

Informal labour is part of many international value chains because of its wide prevalence in the developing world and is relevance in essential services such as solid waste management. Informal workers are the most vulnerable in any country and they do face stigmatization, low pay and violations of their workers’ and human rights.

Studying informal labour, researchers usually assume the perspective of Western consumers and managers. Thus, they “too often ignore informal labour activities in business research. As a result, theories and recommendations fall short when applied to firms that operate in countries where a large part of the population works in the informal sector” (page 830).

Often the abolition of informal labour is the favoured solution. However, abolishing informal labour in the solid waste management process of Kinshasa is not only costly, but will initially cause a lot of harm. We therefore follow the approach of Bauman to approach an ethical dilemma from the local perspective, considering the situation as it presents itself in a specific situation. We conclude: “Any attempt to formalise waste management and recycling in the city would destroy the livelihood of many low-income people. As victims of modernity and collateral casualties of progress, informal waste workers deserve compassion and sympathy for the contribution they are making to the functioning of the waste management and recycling scheme” (page 830). Therefore, “the way forward is to improve the informal sector until it becomes feasible to include it into formalised structures. This process will not be quick, given the size of the phenomenon and the weaknesses of formal institutions” (page 830).


For this qualitative and interpretative study, 45 interviews were conducted. 20 semi-structured interviews took place with senior managers from recycling businesses, 20 focused interviews with informal waste workers and 5 focused interviews with stakeholders from public administration, NGOs and a private business providing WM&R services, products and education. The data analysis follows the Gioia process.

Applications and beneficiaries

This research is relevant to policy makers and managers that intend to address and reduce informal labour within their countries and value chains.

The most common approach to informal labour in responsible supply chain management is to remove these workers and involved businesses from the value chain, if the employment cannot be regularised. Regularisation is a complex challenge as informal work takes often place in essential services that need to remain accessible to poor people such as solid waste management. In secondary parts of the value chain, such as in waste management, the presence of informal labour is usually not identified as these parts are not considered to be relevant for a value chain analysis.

Benefiting from their work without ensuring a better future for informal workers and making measurable improvements to their work conditions is not morally acceptable for an internationally operating business. The assumption that informal labour is just part of a country’s culture should not allow managers to be deaf to the criticism of poor working conditions voiced inside the country. Thus, while international companies cannot change the role of informal labour overnight, they should contribute to its integration in the formal sector in the foreseeable future.

Therefore, managers should consider how they can improve the working conditions in order to prepare these workers for a future when their labour becomes formalised. The latter is often only feasible when the countries’ socioeconomic conditions improve and services for poor parts of the population can be subsidised by wealthier parts. In this process, managers and policy-makers need to ensure that the dignity of informal workers is preserved. Afterall, they do play an important role in many values chains.

Reference to the research

Longondjo Etambakonga, C., & Roloff, J. (2020). Protecting environment or people? Pitfalls and merits of informal labour in the Congolese recycling industry. Journal of Business Ethics, 161, pp. 815-834.

Consult the research paper