[FRONTLINERS] QC garbage collector: Call of duty is keeping homes safe from disease

Alquin Flores has been a garbage collector since he was 14 years old. When the coronavirus disease pandemic struck, he and his team did not have the money nor the gear to protect themselves. He took a chance by posting on Facebook to tell the world that garbage collectors like him are frontliners, too. Then came an outpour of donations from Filipinos who wanted to show their gratitude for the work Alquin's team does. This is the story of garbage collector Alquin Flores, told in his own words.

My name is Alquin Flores, 33 years old, a resident of Barangay Bagong Silangan in Quezon City. I work for LEG Hauling Services and my job is to collect garbage around the second district of Quezon City. 

I have been collecting trash since I was 14 years old. Before coming here to Quezon City, I used to be a garbage collector in Antipolo, where my uncle had the same job. He would bring me along and allow me to help him out so I could earn some cash on the side. I was able to graduate from high school, but it was also that same year when I became a father. 

After high school graduation, it was so hard for me to find a decent job. I collected bottles for a man who used to run a buy-and-sell business. I didn’t stay long because I wanted to look for better opportunities, but I still ended up collecting garbage after one of my in-laws offered me this job in Quezon City.

Before they imposed the quarantine due to COVID-19, I would wake up as early as 4 in the morning and leave by 5. It takes me about 30 to 40 minutes to walk to where I usually meet our truck before we begin collecting trash. We have our breakfast first before starting our work for the day by 7 am.  

There’s 6 of us in one truck. Two of us would push a wooden wagon around to pick up the plastic bags of trash at each house. Then another person waits by the rear side of the truck to haul off the garbage from the wagon to the top of the truck. Two of our other mates wait on top, where they sort out the cans, bottles, paper, and plastic that we could sell to earn some extra cash. There’s a truck driver, of course.  

If our job was risky then, it’s even more dangerous now that there is a pandemic. Because of COVID-19, we are scared not only for ourselves but for the families we come home to. I live with my current partner Jocelhyn Francisco and two of her children from another marriage. I have two more children with past girlfriends, but they don’t live with me right now.  

We really don’t have any personal protective equipment. We only use face masks that we had to provide ourselves. So I decided to make a post on Facebook about our current situation last March 19. I just wanted to let people know that garbage collectors like me are frontliners, too. We also put our lives on the line. I wanted to tell them that whether or not there’s COVID-19, our job exposes us to a lot of risks every day. 

I didn’t expect my post would trend online! I thought no one appreciated the work that we do, but I was wrong. I would stay up all night just to read people’s comments. They said thank you to us garbage collectors. I just couldn’t help but cry. Now, my mates and I are even more motivated to do our jobs. Even if there are people who belittle garbage collectors, there are still others who understand how important our job is.  

Because of my post, netizens started giving us supplies. They gave us face masks, face shields, soaps, and detergents that we could use to help protect ourselves from COVID-19. We also received rice, bottles of water, noodles, and other food supplies.  

There are still good people out there after all. We are so thankful for their donations, especially for the face masks and shields. We really need them for our work. But we also shared some of the masks and shields to the sweepers we met on the streets 

I would never forget that day when a child handed me a box of drawings to thank my team. The guard at this compound full of big houses called out to us. When I reached the gate, I saw a young girl  carrying a box. I thought she would be giving us food. Instead, the box contained 6 small plastic bags of cash, with a drawing of each of us garbage collectors attached. I had to continue collecting trash, so I handed the box to our truck driver first.

It was only at the end of day when we were able to inspect what the girl gave us. It was mostly coins, so I think the money came from her own piggy bank. But it was her drawings that really put a smile to my lips. It really struck me because a child appreciated us! I was really happy. 

We don’t know her personally. She also wore a face mask when she gave us her gift. She just said “thank you,” but it really left a mark on me. She signed her drawing for us with the name Yesha Camille.

What keeps me going? The call of duty. Just like other frontliners, we can’t just stop working. We’re not just fighting COVID-19. We have to collect people’s trash because it’s a possible source of other diseases as well. Can you imagine what would happen if garbage collection in cities stops?

See, that’s our difference with other frontliners. We have no choice but to go straight to our homes after collecting garbage, then we go back to work the next day. 

Before getting the cleaning supplies from netizens, I used to drench myself with a mixture of water and bleach before coming home. I also posted a video about that. One netizen then reached out to me and told me that process was actually harmful to my skin. So he sent some cash and told me to buy sulfur soap instead. From then on, I stopped using bleach.

We also received donations of alcohol, so I would spray some on my body before entering our home. I would immediately take off my clothes and drench them in bleach, before I go to our bathroom to take a shower. 

I am always afraid. I got paranoid whenever I feel my head aching or when my throat gets itchy. I always end up thinking I have COVID-19 already. But I have no choice, because my family relies on me. Our children would die from hunger if I’m just going to wait for the emergency subsidy from the government. (READ: 'Walang-wala na': Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus)

Right now, I consider myself lucky when I get to bring home P200 at the end of the day. A lot of junk shops closed down when they imposed the lockdown. The rates now are pretty low for the junk shops that are still able to operate. We still accept the money though, because what’s important is that we get to buy rice for our family. We can get by even without any viand to eat.

We haven’t received the subsidy from government yet, but I’m not angry. I don’t want to add to their problems. I just want our problem with COVID-19 to be over soon, so that everything would go back to normal again. 

To the Filipinos who still don’t understand the value of garbage collectors to society, I hope you can change your minds about us. This is a give-and-take relationship. You need us; we need you. You may look down on our job, but we will still collect your garbage anyway for the greater good. 

To those who appreciate us, thank you very much. I decided to speak up now not for myself, but for all garbage collectors out there. – Rappler.com 

Editor’s Note: Rappler interviewed Flores on April 9, 2020. All his quotes have been translated to English.

Anyone who wishes to donate to Flores and his team of garbage collectors can send him a message on Facebook

HEADER PHOTO: FRONTLINERS TOO. Alquin Flores poses with other garbage collectors in Quezon City. Photo courtesy of Flores.

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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