Let's do more to support elderly cardboard collectors

Let's do more to support elderly cardboard collectors

SINGAPORE - I was staring at the scene where the body of Zheng Yuan Ying, 86, lay pinned under a bus on Wednesday morning. She was killed while making her way to a cardboard-collection point in Marsiling Lane.

It is a grim reminder to me that a job, even as mundane as collecting discarded cardboard, comes with risks. Barely 20m from where Madam Zheng's body was, three elderly women appeared oblivious that one of their own had been struck down by a vehicle.

In the heat, they pushed their carts along the same road, hoping that motorists would give them a wide berth. Perhaps they had no time to stop and reflect, in their urgency to make a few extra dollars that could mean the difference between going hungry and having a hot meal.

Why do these seniors take such risks? What drives people like Madam Zheng to work through their golden years for a pittance?

I found out the hard way in February when I took part in a social experiment to get a taste of their way of life. The 20kg of cardboard I collected came with a price: much sweat, very nearly tears and the awful realisation that I was lousy at doing this after four hours of hunting for cardboard in Little India.

At 10 cents per kilo, I made a grand $2 for my pains. I still keep that $2 note as a reminder of the hardship faced by elderly cardboard collectors.

On Wednesday, when some of them told me they make about $10 a day, I calculated that to earn that kind of money, they would have to collect 100kg of cardboard.

From the time I spent with them, I learnt that poverty and boredom are usually prerequisites for the job. Some can be stubbornly independent, even to the extent of hiding what they do from their families out of pride or fear of getting scolded.


There are no benefits, no unions and no respite. If you are slow or fall sick, someone else will grab the cardboard, as I discovered.

Yet, some aunties more than twice my age put me to shame with their collections.

Few care or notice as these nameless aunties and uncles tread on the fringes of society, pushing carts with wheels that are often broken.

But yesterday, somebody did care.

After Madam Zheng's tragic death, a residents' committee member worked behind the scenes, interviewing people for morsels of information. He told me that he wanted to make it safer for seniors, whether they choose to collect cardboard as a pastime or for profit.

This gesture brings hope that something will be done to help these senior citizens. Why not take it further?

A collective effort on educating them and drivers on road safety, ensuring they are paid fairly and providing rest points in Housing Board estates could make a world of difference.

Perhaps, some ministries can support such initiatives, which must ultimately sprout at the grassroots level. The issue of senior cardboard collectors will not go away quietly in an ageing society.

But if the authorities and society band together to help them, then Madam Zheng's death will not have been in vain.

This article by The New Paper was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.

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