December 3, 2009 – At a warehouse near Manila’s infamous Smokey Mountain dump, slum-dwellers working for a British-led charity are turning rubbish into fashion items that are proving a hit in top-end London shops.
Under a dim fluorescent lamp, amid the constant humming of sewing machines, about 20 women cut pieces of cloth and other materials found amid the garbage to make teddy bears.
Others are busy putting finishing touches to handbags and purses made from discarded toothpaste tubes, while glossy magazines are turned into colourful bracelets.
“This bag costs about 100 pounds sterling (165 dollars) or more in London,” said Jane Walker, a former publishing executive from Southampton who gave up her lavish lifestyle in 1996 to set up the Philippine Christian Foundation in Manila after seeing the plight of the poor here.
Walker said about 200 bags were currently being shipped to boutiques in London, and the foundation was unable to meet demand.
“I had to turn down three shops in London ordering our products because we keep running out.”
Walker said a deal to supply a major luxury chain was also in the works, while negotiations were underway with an American firm to produce shoes and slippers using discarded car tyres.
Known in the local press as Manila’s “angel of the dumps” for her work among the scavengers of Smokey Mountain, the 45-year-old single mother’s tireless efforts have helped entire families rise above crushing poverty.
Last year, she was made a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her work.
Relying mainly on corporate donations, the non-profit foundation provides livelihood projects, health services and free education to children of families living on the dumpsite.
Covering a sprawling area in Tondo district near Manila Bay and just a few kilometres (miles) from the presidential palace, Smokey Mountain has come to symbolise pervasive poverty in this Southeast Asian nation of 92 million people.
An entire colony of squatter families lives off the dump, which got its name from methane gas-induced black smoke billowing from the mound.
While parts of the site have been levelled to make official settlements over the past decade, a large portion remains a permanent open dump for tonnes of daily refuse from Manila’s 12 million inhabitants.
Before Walker set up her foundation, swarms of children and entire families would descend on the trash, scavenging for items to sell at junkshops.
The thousands of people living on Smokey Mountain had no other way out, and the few pesos earned from a day’s gruelling work was spent on food.
Many still do scavenge.
But through Walker’s efforts, a school was built, an abandoned warehouse was transformed into a livelihood centre where hot meals were offered and the children were given a semblance of a normal life.
Then, when the global financial crisis hit last year and many donors cut back on corporate social responsibility work, Walker was forced to find creative ways to raise new funding.
She came up with the idea of turning trash into fashion accessories and began getting members of the community, mainly mothers, to start sewing together ring tabs from aluminum cans into tiny purses.
She then expanded the project to include laptop and shoulder bags for women.