Are Our Karung Guni Uncles and Aunties Earning Enough to Survive?
A group familiar to all Singaporeans is also bearing the brunt of this economic impact.
They are our karung guni uncles and aunties.
A big part of our childhood, these rag-and-bone collectors would roam the corridors of HDB blocks and collect old goods for a living.
Besides having their jobs facing prejudice and contempt from some Singaporeans, the Karung Guni trade is struggling to stay afloat, and the situation has been made worse by the current pandemic.
While the Karung Guni trade is mostly made up of Chinese men, the name is in Malay, which translates to ‘gunny sack‘.
It started in the 1970s, and has since become a significant part of Singapore’s recycling backbone.
The items collected by these rag-and-bone collectors are usually unwanted household items, and would range from old electronics, newspapers, to clothing and furniture.
Most karung guni men and women have been in the trade for several years, earning an honest living through this backbreaking job to feed their families.
Are They Different From Cardboard Uncles/Aunties?
According to a Mothership interview, a karung guni is not the same as a cardboard collector.
Cardboard collectors usually roam the streets in search of disposed cardboard pieces and drink cans.
For a karung guni, these discarded items are being bought from people.
For them, there is a monetary transaction involved.
How Much Do Karung Guni Uncles and Aunties Earn?
After collecting the items, the karung guni has to resell it to a scrap company.
According to an interview conducted by TODAY, scrap companies have recently seen a fall in prices of scrap materials.
|Scrap Material||Price in February 2020 (per kg)||Price in June 2020 (per kg) |
(After Circuit Breaker Ended)
|Decrease in Price|
|Iron scrap metal||S$0.25||S$0.22||12%|
Source: TODAY Online
Let’s assume that a company receives 10kg of each scrap material type from Mr Tan, a karung guni man.
(This means 10kg of newspapers, 10kg of cardboard, etc.)
Based on the prices above, the scrap company can only earn $12.70 from the sale of these materials.
Given that the company would take a cut before reselling to purchasers, we can expect Mr Tan to earn even lesser than $12.70, from the sale of 40kg worth of collected goods.
In the same interview, the karung guni men mentioned that they are taking home between $4 to $30 a day nowadays, less than half of what they used to earn.
According to Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s latest finding, here’s how much a household needs to meet their basic needs:
|Demographic of household||How much you need for basic needs|
|Single elderly household||$1,379 per month|
|Coupled elderly household||$2,351 per month|
(aged 55 - 64 years old)
|$1,721 per month|
Source: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
Taking an average price of the scrap materials ($0.31 per kg), this is the amount a karung guni needs to collect to meet his basic needs.
|Demographic of household||How much you need for basic needs||Amount Of Scrap Materials Required (per month)||Amount Of Scrap Materials Required (per day)
Assuming 30 days/month
|Single elderly household||$1,379 per month||4,448kg||148.2kg|
|Coupled elderly household||$2,351 per month||7,583kg||252.8kg|
(aged 55 - 64 years old)
|$1,721 per month||5,551kg||185.0kg|
A daily minimum of 148.2kg worth of scrap goods would be required to meet their basic needs.
This excludes the additional costs required to sustain their jobs, which include the rising vehicle and petrol prices, which are required in this line of work.
With earnings barely covering these costs, it is no wonder that many have chosen to leave this trade.
How Is COVID-19 Affecting the Karung Guni Business?
With the COVID-19 situation, many scrap companies are unable to export their collected goods due to global restrictions and lockdowns of importing countries.
In the past, foreign buyers would drop by some of these companies and purchase these scrap materials in bulk.
The current lack of buyers has resulted in a fall of over 80% in business for these companies.
This then translates to lower prices of scrap materials, which the karung guni would have to bear.
In addition, the restrictions in place have caused a drop in discarded materials at shops and shopping centres.
Scrap metal from construction and renovation sites have also decreased when work had to cease during the circuit breaker.
Less materials = less things to collect.
Scrap companies now also take longer to collate enough materials for export, leaving existing materials stockpiled at their warehouses.
With this excess supply, karung gunis are offered lower prices for the things they sell.
What Can Be Done to Help the Karung Guni Uncles and Aunties?
The Karung Guni trade is indeed a dying trade.
With the convenience of listing items online on platforms like Carousell, there are now alternatives to getting rid of unwanted household items.
Given how backbreaking this job is for its low-profit margin, it is understandable why the number of karung gunis are rapidly dwindling.
During the Eco Action Day in 2019, that karung gunis have collected almost nine times more recyclables than national recycling efforts.
With the increase in the focus on environmental sustainability, the importance of a karung guni has never been clearer.
Not all hope is lost as this dwindling trade could be saved through the use of technology, and possible government initiatives.
For instance, a group of SUTD professors and colleagues have designed a mobile application to simplify the collection process between the collector and households.
Using technology, this app would increase efficiency and streamline the usual processes a karung guni usually has to go through.
While this industry might not be the most tech-savvy group, the government can also tap on their knowledge to promote effective domestic recycling.
To fill the gaps in recycling knowledge that currently exists in the society, those in the karung guni trade could be mobilised to educate residents with their strong knowledge of the fundamentals of recycling.
They could even be employed as ambassadors to encourage community-driven recycling efforts, and help in reducing the recurring issue of cross-contamination (between recyclables and non-recyclables).
We’ve seen how easy it is to be replaced in the current society.
In the world today where job security is no longer a given, there is a pressing need to constantly upgrade ourselves to continually stay relevant.
Also, this shows the importance of good personal finance planning, and retirement planning should start as early as we can.
This is to ensure that we would be ready in an event where there are any sudden changes in life.
If you’re looking for advice in terms of retirement planning, our SeedlyCommunity might be a good place to start! 😊