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“They are hoarding rubbish and burning tyres wherever you put them…”: Displacing and Disciplining Roma Waste Pickers in Belgrade

eva schwabSince 2009 Belgrade has become the site of massive interventions in ‘public order’ that revolve around one problematic subject: the ‘informal individual Roma waste picker’. Interventions to restore ‘public order’ usually come under different banners ranging from hygienic living conditions, to security, to civil rights. In the name of realizing common goods these interventions profoundly reorganize socio-economic rights and property relations. As such they have disenfranchising effects on certain subjects problematized as essentially unsuited to the orderly, clean, safe society to come. After analyzing the conditions that led to the emergence of this figure of the ‘Roma waste picker’ in Belgrade, I will unveil how interventions in public order reach into deeper social antagonisms and tie urban citizenship rights to labor struggles.

In 2003 the City of Belgrade introduced a new procedure for the large-scale legalization of informal settlements, which until then made up 43% of the residential area. At the same time it singles out 130 settlements in the city as ‘unhygienic’ and exempted from legalization. ‘Unhygienic settlements’ are an ill-defined domain of informal settlements, which are problematized in the Master Plan (2003) on the grounds of being located next to ‘wild dumps’. Moreover, they are said to have grown mostly from refugees and IDPs in the 1990s as well as repatriated refugees during the 2000s – groups that “brought levels of poverty to the city that were until then unknown”[i]. During the war these settlements were a last refuge for refugees and IDPs who were not accepted in collective centers and were as such outside the purview of INGOs. In that time the city provided some of the settlements with facilities for the separation of waste to secure some kind of income. From the 2000s on these settlements became a preferred site for NGO-driven projects for Roma integration, which helped establish their exceptional status and a vision that they present complex social problems, which cannot be tackled by legalization through regular law. Between 2009 and 2013 Belgrade has become the site of a whole wave of displacements of so called ‘unhygienic settlements’. From the over 2,800 people who were affected,[ii] around half were resettled to container settlements at the outskirts of the city with repressive codes of conduct conditioning the right to this shelter, whereas the other half was altogether evicted from the city.

What is typical for interventions in public order is that they follow a complex intermingling of governing subjects and objects. By means of talking about objects the impression of realizing a ‘common good’ is set up and effects on subjects are obscured. In the case of ‘unhygienic settlements’ this intermingling of subjects and objects can be demonstrated by following the problematization of ‘wild dumps’.

In the Master Plan of Belgrade (2003) ‘wild dumps’ are thought of in two ways: first in the context of ‘unhygienic settlements’. But there also appears a section separate from the one on ‘unhygienic settlements,’ dealing exclusively with the problem of ‘wild dumps’. According to that section ‘wild dumps’ occur all over the city together with ‘temporary objects’ that should be ‘removed’ in order to save ‘city greenery’, especially woods[iii]. These ‘temporary objects’ de facto often include shelters, which, by being depicted as temporary objects or wild constructions, become part of the dumps that can be simply ‘cleared’ or ‘removed’ (in contrast to ‘resettled’). The way in which this discourse around ‘wild dumps’ is mobilized  – both in connection to ‘unhygienic settlement’ and in its more violent form: alienated from a discourse on human shelter – can be demonstrated in relation to the Belgradian municipality of Čukarica.

In the course of a cleaning action in September 2012 the municipality Čukarica started to tackle the problem of ‘wild dumps’ occurring on its territory. Part of the effort was to install containers to facilitate the selection work of waste pickers. With the installment of the containers the municipality at the same time made a distinction. It declared that these containers were only meant for the ‘local Roma’, ‘living for decades on Čukarica landslide’ to select domestic waste. These people were disciplined in a joint cleaning action with City Sanitation Services.  In a statement headed “Removing dump from the unhygienic settlement Čukarica landslide” the municipality proudly reports that it “finally succeeded in tackling the multiannual problem of continually extending rubbish heaps and the spread of bad smells from the burning of gums, because of which citizens constantly faced great ecological harm”[iv]. Moreover, it stated that after the cleaning action the ‘local Roma’ “promised to keep their settlement clean”[v]. This promise included that they would not engage in the burning of tyres that goes along with the more profitable processing of industrial waste, but had to retreat to the realm of domestic waste, e.g. mostly paper and glass in order to stay in the municipality.

waste1For the campaign ‘We Clean Serbia’ the then Mayor Dragan Đilas and President of the City Parliament Aleksandar Antić participate in a cleaning action on the territory from which one of the biggest ‘unhygienic settlements’ in Belgrade had been removed earlier that year.

Who are excluded from the category ‘local Roma’? In the last three years in Čukarica a few other informal settlements developed, mostly in Čukarica wood, which is somewhat separated from the other settlement and the waste collection facilities by a main road. In 2012 this settlement in the wood was removed and the event was covered by the press saying ‘Communal Mess in Čukarica cleaned’[vi]. The article tells the story of a ‘wild dump’ in the woods that was cleared up and the inhabitants altogether expelled from the city to their ‘places of origin’ in more impoverished parts of Serbia.

The violence of displacement and dispossession is not only in the case of the municipality Cukarica obscured by taking the detour of problematizing ‘wild dumps’ but is a central strategy to reorganize socio-economic rights and property relations. The Serbian journal ‘Ekologija’ problematized ‘wild dumps’ in the following way:

“The uncontrolled storage of communal waste on unregulated dump yards represents one of the biggest sources of the pollution of the environment in Belgrade. The majority of unregulated dump yards does not satisfy basic security measures. For example, security fences around the location grant undisturbed access to individual collectors of secondary raw materials, pets, different types of gnawers, insects and birds.”[vii]

This list of types of unauthorized access recalls  the Chinese encyclopedia Foucault (1994[1966]) quotes in his The Order of Things[viii]. By way of equating animals, insects and waste pickers, the author suggests a purely scientific, sanitary discourse of what is actually a political act of enclosure through which the valuable recyclables in Serbia are currently organized to be offered to big investors. In the Ekologija article, it is further argued that the environmental dangers of unregulated dump yards can only be dealt with by the “strongest possible intervention” i.e. a regulation that targets: gas, unpleasant smells, water, and “the direct contact of people, pets and birds with waste which is a definite transmitter of diseases”.

The clearance of “wild dumps” is the keystone of Serbia’s strategy of enclosing the market of recyclables and offering it to foreign investors. In the course of the EU pre-accession negotiations Serbia has been encouraged to increase its recycling rate by 10 to 20 times[ix]. Currently Serbia exports secondary raw material worth 150 million Euro yearly.  75% of that material is collected by informally operating waste pickers[x]. Approximately 8.000 persons in Serbia are ‘professional’ waste pickers according to data gathered by the Republican Syndicate of Collectors of Secondary Raw Materials, that is, they do not have any other sources of income[xi]. Most of them not being motorized, they walk with their carts on average 19,7 km daily and their income varies from material they collect with the lowest being paper with approximately 4 Euro per 200 kg[xii]. In addition to the professional collectors there are since the economic crisis in 2009 more and more people who pick recyclables as a side income which makes a total of about 40,000 people in Serbia who informally pick secondary raw materials[xiii].

In order to raise the rate of recycled materials different measures are regarded as helpful: stricter laws on pollution for companies, better conditions for collection and sorting of waste and subventions to keep the selling of recycled materials profitable, and raising the environmental consciousness of private waste producers to secure their participation in waste separation. As the Minister for Environmental Protection pointed, out one of the most important strategies will be to set up a transparent network of actors engaged in the collection and refinement of waste that has to be “known inside out” in order to raise the rate of recyclables. He added that “Roma waste pickers will have a key position in that network”[xiv]. Here are three important initiatives that currently reorganize the waste sector in Belgrade and how they obscure or make legible this figure: ‘the individual informal waste picker’:

waste2Cart of a Cargo Bike, picture taken by Miona Stefanović for Heinrich Böll Foundation.

In 2009 the Serbian government initiated the campaign ‘We clean Serbia’ (‘Očistimo Srbiju’). The central part of the campaign was to clear up ‘wild dumps’ in volunteer, civil initiatives. This action primarily targets ‘citizens’ (private producers of waste who shall engage in waste separation) and the municipalities that shall be stimulated to engage in recycling (i.e. to attract investors who build recycling yards)[xv]. In the frame of this campaign the central city government started to build underground containers in some parts of the city in order to ‘prevent scattering of waste in the streets’ and provide more parking lots[xvi]. The licensing made it possible to clear the ‘wild dumps’ where collectors without licenses stored and refined waste and the underground containers deprive waste pickers of access to secondary raw materials. Under the rhetoric of producing public order – an order which is enjoyable for people with cars and who want to enjoy city greenery for spare time activities – these strategies actually reorganize property relations and rights of use. Whereas recyclables were collected and refined through informal chains that worked through right of use, now municipalities are encouraged to enclose recyclables and grant the right of refinement to certain companies that are selected through economic principles. 

In the same year that the campaign ‘We clean Serbia’ was started, a new ‘Law on Waste Management’ established a licensing system for entrepreneurs dealing with waste[xvii]. This system obliges operators to request a license from the municipality within which they want to collect, sell and refine waste. This also implicates a system of official spots in the city for storing and refining waste, which are installed by the municipality or bigger companies. In reaction to this new law the coordinator of the Decade for Roma Inclusion in Serbia, Osman Balić, founded a syndicate to organize informal waste pickers in Serbia. For Kurir newspaper he said: “For municipalities it is easier to give the concession for the recycling of communal waste to big capitalist companies than to take care of their unemployed citizens who live from picking secondary raw materials”[xviii]. Through the syndicate he plans to organize waste pickers in micro-enterprises. In that way he seeks to strengthen their position to be actually able to tap into the licensing system and thus participate in the promises of ‘formal employment’ (like health insurance)[xix].

Between 2011 and 2012, USAID and Sustainable Communities NGO launched the project ‘Green Initiative’ (‘Zelena Inicijativa’). The initiative started from the goal of organizing waste pickers, promising that this would increase the recycling rate of secondary raw material by 20%[xx]. The most important contribution of the project is evaluated by USAID as ‘building up partnerships between individual pickers, collection stations and recycling yards that will help Serbia meet EU standards on recycling”[xxi]. To understand these partnerships it is necessary to mention that ‘Green Initiative’ is only a small portion of a bigger project by USAID aiming to stimulate competition and set up a market for investments around the EU directive to increase the recycling rate of waste.

The main network established by Green Initiative is Eko-Starpak, which has become acknowledged in the meantime as the second biggest recycling company for packaging waste. Together with the Belgian company PRO-Europe, Seko-Pak, known as Green Dot they have a total market share of 94%[xxii]. One of the Serbian companies gathered in the Eko-Starpak network is the Serbian paper recycling company ‘Umka’, which advocates the organization of the work of Roma waste pickers as a crucial step in the direction of raising the rate of paper that is treated in recycling yards. They argue that when the work of picking paper becomes a more profitable and secure source of income, wild dumps will automatically disappear. In that context they lobby for governmental subsidies for recycled paper to strengthen the position of Roma working in that sector. However, Umka suspects that at the moment the government is not interested in investing in the recycling of paper because Green Dot is about to monopolize in a public-private partnership the sector of packaging waste and as an ‘expert on the European way of dealing with waste’[xxiii] has influenced the legislation in that area[xxiv].

Seko-Pak, respectively Green Dot has become acknowledged in Serbia as a ‘non-profit organization’[xxv] which advocates for example in the area of electronic waste. In one of the strategy papers it drafted for the Serbian government it targets Roma waste pickers:

The picking of communal recyclable material further strongly relies on the Roma population; in those areas where fewer Roma live, the job is sometimes also taken over by other endangered populations. […] The waste collection is done in an unregulated and disorganized way. The picking of paper and carton is mostly done by Roma as their dominant activity, but it can also be said that they engage in the collection of old electronic devices. […] Characterized as a dirty job, the management of waste does not attract a large number of interested entrepreneurs […] [Waste] pickers chose this job because of the advantages that it offers (flexible working hours, no pressure of norms, independence) in relation to construction work or agriculture which are physically much much demanding.[xxvi]

The strategy paper then differentiates between measures that shall be taken for the employees of big companies that engage in the recycling of e-waste (such as provisions for protective clothes) in order to limit the harm involved in this process, and for informal Roma waste pickers, for whom it is recommended to retreat to recycling domestic waste because of the harms involved in the process. Although the strategy paper acknowledges that „Roma often inhabit a key position in tying together different actors in the recycling of e-waste”[xxvii]. they do not treat them as entrepreneurs with companies that could be targeted by the suggested improvements in working conditions. Rather they are treated as a precarious informal individual labor force that should retreat to the recycling of less dangerous types of waste, e.g. types of waste that could be dealt with without much equipage and machines (and without much profit).

waste3Bajsologija NGO in cooperation with Heinrich Böll Foundation initiated a workshop where cargo bikes are repaired. Within the framework of sustainable mobility their idea is to establish networks of local companies that cooperate with waste collectors on bikes, but also to help owners of cargo bikes tap into other services than collection of waste, for example delivery services (Picture taken by Miona Stefanović for Heinrich Böll Foundation)


From this sketchy description it becomes clear how the figure of the ‘individual Roma waste picker’ is deployed for different ends: the Syndicate of Collectors of Secondary Raw Materials was funded by the President of the Decade for Roma Inclusion. He talks about individual Roma waste pickers to put the working conditions of waste pickers in a line with other racialized forms of economic exploitation that Roma are exposed to throughout Europe[xxviii]. The Paper Recycling Company Umka associates Roma with the collection of paper to raise attention to and politicize its efforts in lobbying for governmental subsidies. Then in the case of the Strategy Paper on e-waste, “Roma” seems to be the label necessary to explain why certain people are ‘interested in dirty work’ and lazy, so that they decided not to work in ‘more physically demanding fields like agriculture’. Poor working conditions are associated in an essentializing way with people being Roma. This racialized logic disqualifies them from participating in the measures suggested for improving working conditions through better equipment. They are rather recommended to apply their chaotic work habits to less dangerous (and less profitable) materials.

The problematization of ‘unhygienic living and work habits’ does not talk about property and socio-economic rights, but sets up a meta-discourse which legitimates governmental strategies that reorganize the conditions for property and rights. These governmental strategies target a certain way of ‘relating to objects’ and by that detour legitimate the exclusion of the Roma population from profitable recycling markets as entrepreneurs. Moreover, this meta-discourse easily renders them out of place, e.g. legitimates displacements and conditions their access to social housing. This last point can be best observed in the newly set-up container settlements.

Container settlements, officially called ‘mobile housing units’, were set up as an intermediary step that should socialize people from ‘unhygienic settlements’ before they qualify for social housing. Container settlements are like the social disease they shall cure (e.g. ‘unhygienic living conditions’) a category that does not exist legally. The right to a container is established through a ‘contract of use’ – a category that means neither rental (like social housing) nor property[xxix]. These ‘contracts of use’ tie the right to a container to participation in a socialization program: children’s school attendance, participation in employment initiatives, and diverse forms of ‘good conduct’ became obligatory. More important, it was forbidden to store scavenged raw materials near the container settlement[xxx]. Scavenged raw material next to residential space has been labelled as a ‘nuisance’ that conflicts with the socializing agenda of the settlements that translates into certain visions of cleanliness. One official working for the city government told me her concerns about resettling people from ‘unhygienic settlements’ to proper social housing, since they would not know ‘how to behave’ – “they heap rubbish and burn gums wherever you put them”[xxxi]. In case of the various types of ‘nuisances’ that can be easily spotted on the basis of these regulations whole families lost their right to a container and any alternative accommodation and accompanying social rights in Belgrade.

Through these regulations container inhabitants who still live from scavenging became more dependent on storing spots provided by state or corporate actors within the city and the system of licensing introduced with the new Law on Waste Management[xxxii]. For some of those who were resettled to locations distant from other residential areas, the city government partially provided employment in the communal waste company as part of the employment initiative that also conditions the right to stay in the container. Moreover, near one of the container settlements, a social enterprise for recycling (SWIFT) has been constructed in collaboration with the municipality of Zvezdara, WHO, IOM and USAID, which is widely promoted as an example of the ‘best practice of Roma integration’. This shows how dealing with waste sticks as a characteristic to the population from ‘unhygienic settlements’ even after the resettlement and became part the improvement program. In the container settlements the improvement of Roma waste pickers from ‘unhygienic settlements’ and the question whether they qualify to stay in the city is monitored through their relation to waste: whether or not they store it in front of their containers and whether or not they are willing to participate in the initiative to employ them in the Communal Waste Company.

At the end of the 1970s in Thatcher’s Britain a newly spotted crime ‘mugging’ enflamed a moral panic that aimed at restoring public order. The interventions that followed started to police a particular set of social, political and economic relations as transgressions[xxxiii]. What appeared as ‘soft’ interventions in public order meant for those sentenced for ‘mugging’ an exorbitantly increased severity of punishment. Similarly, ‘unhygienic settlements and wild dumps’ have recently enflamed a moral panic in Belgrade, leading to the introduction of new governmental strategies that target a particularly ‘problematic subject’: the ‘informal individual Roma waste picker’. Under the surface of producing a clean, inclusive city the interventions targeting ‘unhygienic settlements’ and ‘wild dumps’ practically reorganize work, property relations and urban citizenship rights through increasingly racialized categories. Whereas more and more Belgradians started to pick waste especially in the economic crisis, it is the ‘individual informal Roma waste picker’ from ‘unhygienic settlements’ who has to show a certain relation to waste in order to qualify for urban citizenship rights.


[i] Master Plan Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia 2003/27.
[iii]Master Plan 2003:58, my translation.
[iv] Ibd.
[vi] Studio B, 22.4.2013,, my translation.
[vii] Cvetkovic, Slavica (2009): “Upravljanje životnom sredinom sanacijom postojećih smetlišta”. [Management of the Environment by Sanitating Existing Dumps] In: Ekologija 239-252. p.244.
[viii] Foucault, Michel (1994): The Order of Things. An Archeology of the Human Sciences. Vintage Books Edition, Random House: New York. [org. Les mots et les choses, 1966, Edition Gallimard].
[ix] The most important EU directives in this context are Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC); Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC), and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (94/62/EC) (cf. National Environmental Approximation Strategy 2011 ).
[x] Green Initiative News, “Prikupljaci otpada gladuju dok kompanije profitiraju na ekologiji”, [Waste Collectors starve while companies capitalize on the ecology]
[xi] MIC, 28.1.2011, “Formiran Republicki Sindikat Sakupljaca Sekundarnih Sirovina” [Republican Syndicate of Collectors of Secondary Raw Materials funded”]
[xii] Green Initiative News, see above.
[xiii] Politika, 8.9.2011, „Socijalna Preduzeca za sakupljace otpada“ [„Social enterprises for waste pickers“]
[xiv]RTS, 12.10.2010, “Zakon muči sakupljače otpada” [“Law bothers waste pickers”]
[xvi] Media, 28.2.2013, “Podzemni kontejneri – kako smo upropastili jos jednu dobru ideju” [“Underground Containers – how we messed up yet another good idea”]
[xvii] Republic of Serbia (2009): Law on the Management of Waste. [Zakon o upravljanju otpadom. Sl. RS Glasnik, 36/2009].
[xix] I write ‘promises of formal employment’, because formal employment, depending on the (de-)regulations that will be put up in that sector, does not automatically entail any social rights.
[xxiii] In order to solve the problem of packaging waste in accordance with European standards a British consultant recommended to the Serbian government to find a complete consensus between industry and government: “The consent is realized in a way that the industry will contribute through financing the establishment of a modern recycling system and the government has to support that by passing legal regulations. The regulative mechanisms shall only exist as some kind of corrective mechanism, since in practice the cheapest system will be that which is to the smallest degree legally imposed […]. Therefore I’m happy that in Serbia there are organizations like ‘Sekopak’, because this is the right way for industry to show its power, as it is the case also in other countries”. Politika, 4.2.2007, „Kako preraditi ambalazni otpad“ [„How to recycle packaging waste“].
[xxv] Politika, 4.2.2007, see above.
[xxvi] Balkan E-Waste Management Advocacy Network (2010): p.45, my translation and emphasis.
[xxvii] Ibd.
[xxviii] Interview with Osman Balic, 12.12.2014.
[xxix] Conversation with Danilo Curcic (Legal Advisor at Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – YUCOM), 9.12.14.
[xxx] Amnesty International (2011): Housing is more than a Roof over Your Head. Serbia denied adequate Housing for Roma. Housing is a Human Right: London.
[xxxi] Interview, Social Worker, 14.11.2012.
[xxxii] RS 2009, see above.
[xxxiii] Hall, Stuart/ Critcher, Charles/ Jefferson, Tony/ Clarke, John/ Roberts, Brian (1978): Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillian.

By Eva Schwab

Eva Schwab studied Sociology and Social and Cultural Anthropology in Münster and Vienna. She is currently Ph.D. student at Central European University in Budapest.