Hazards of being a cardboard collector
They risk life and limb collecting cardboard on busy roads
Picking cardboard boxes on a sunny day can be gruelling.
It can also be dangerous work.
Two women - 86-year-old Madam Ching Guan Eng and more recently, Madam Tan Powi Kim, 62 - were killed while making ends meet as cardboard collectors.
The pickers say being hurt in a traffic accident or worse, getting killed, are the least of their concerns.
They say it is more important that they sell their pickings quickly to recyclers at two collection points in Little India.
The New Paper on Sunday observed a few pickers last Thursday afternoon.
Despite daily near misses with traffic on busy Serangoon Road, they have little choice but to soldier on.
Buffalo Road is prime real estate as shops selling fruits and vegetables often discard cardboard boxes.
This reporter spotted one elderly woman who appeared to be the only collector working a 100m stretch of Buffalo Road.
Railings prevented her from sorting the cardboard on the crowded pavement, which was teeming with tourists and shoppers.
So she had to flatten the cardboard boxes at the side of the busy road, close to approaching traffic.
Her bamboo hat, which shielded her from the harsh sun, also blocked her peripheral vision.
Once she was done with sorting, she confidently crossed the road, pushing her loaded trolley to other stash points nearby.
Occasionally, motorists exiting Tekka Market's basement carpark honked at her for getting in their way.
Another picker, Mr Ramalingam, who claims to be 90, says he tries to reach a collection point by 3pm every day.
He is proud that at his age, he is still leading an independent life. (See report on facing page.)
From his "office" near Tekka Market, he walked 300m to Clive Street where pickers sell their cardboard to recyclers.
He does this at least twice every afternoon.
Crossing Serangoon Road was challenging. When the lights at the pedestrian crossing turned green, Mr Ramalingam cut across diagonally to the other side.
"It is faster this way. I get a head start," he says.
He says he does not use the pedestrian crossing or the narrow pavement on the other side of the road as he finds it difficult to manoeuvre his trolley.
Most vehicles gave Mr Ramalingam a one-lane berth except for those turning right into smaller roads. He occasionally looked over his left shoulder.
Once he turned into Upper Dickson Road, his pace slowed.
He says: "This lane is the only place I can relax a bit. Here, I know there are no cars."
Other pickers made the same perilous journey as Mr Ramalingam.
One of them, an elderly man pushing a supermarket trolley loaded with aluminium cans, nearly found himself wedged between two vehicles along Serangoon Road.
A passing van on his left came within a metre of his left shoulder as he made a risky move of walking beside a truck parked on Serangoon Road.
After selling the used cardboard boxes to recyclers, Mr Ramalingam has to make another run.
On his way back to Tekka Market, a wrongly timed crossing found a nervous-looking Mr Ramalingam caught between two approaching cars.
Luckily, the cars slowed down for him.
'My legs are okay. I can still work'
LOAD UP: Mr Ramalingam with the flattened cardboard boxes he collected. He allowed TNPS to mount two cameras onto his trolley.
By his own admission, Mr Ramalingam is new to the game.
He made his foray into picking cardboard on Feb 15 and calls a quiet spot near Tekka Market his "office".
Despite hearing stories of elderly pickers who were injured on the job, Mr Ramalingam says his sharp senses will keep him out of trouble.
He points to his discoloured legs and says: "I am 90. Nobody, not my four sons or even my wife can tell me what to do. My legs are okay. I can still work."
TOUGH: At 10 cents per kilogram, it will take 100kg of cardboard to earn $10.
He admits he does not like to stay at home despite his family discouraging him from working.
Mr Ramalingam, a former engineer with the Public Works Department, allowed this reporter to tag along on his rounds last Thursday afternoon.
He picks around the market and when he collects enough, he secures the flattened cardboard boxes on his new trolley. He then heads to Clive Street.
WEIGH-IN: After selling 38kg of cardboard to a recycler, Mr Ramalingam gets $3.80. He quickly returns to Tekka
Market for a second run.
As he pushes his trolley along a row of shops, shopkeeper Chinna Thambi, 67, acknowledges Mr Ramalingam with a nod.
He knows Mr Ramalingam is a new face in the estate. Mr Thambi has seen the elderly man shop for groceries and return home at night.
Mr Thambi of Sri Guru Raghavendra Trading later says: "He is a stronger man than me. I once saw him finish a whole plate of rice topped off with mutton and chicken. I think he needs all the energy (for his work)."
Mr Ramalingam loads around 40kg of cardboard each time. He usually stops after two or three loads, when he gets tired.
CAREFUL: Mr Ramalingam, does not use the pedestrian crossing or the pavement as it is difficult to move his
Dodging passers-by is tough. So he pushes his trolley on the road instead.
Says Mr Ramalingam, who lives with his 76-year-old wife in Jalan Kayu: "There are too many people in Little India. It is impossible to use the pavement. Using the road is faster. I just need to keep clear of the vehicles."
To go to work, he takes a bus.
At the recycler in Clive Street, Mr Ramalingam waits with anxiety.
His cardboard is on the digital weighing scale, and he squints to look at the reading.
It reads 38kg. At 10 cents per kilogram, the payout is not much. But it is enough for Mr Ramalingam.
He smiles widely and says: "Saya dapat tiga ringgit lebih." (Malay for I was paid about $3.)
In the hot afternoon sun, he undid one of his shirt buttons before walking back to Tekka Market.
He spots two grease-stained cardboard boxes left beside a rubbish bin, turns to this reporter and says: "That's money."