Not many people get the opportunity to experience what it would be like to do their job in one of the toughest places in the world. For 43-year old Wilbur Ramirez, the opportunity came in the form of a starring role in a primetime BBC documentary, first broadcast yesterday evening that took him from the streets of London to the sprawling backstreets of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Here, he spent ten days living with Imam, a local Jakarta 'binman', and his family, to experience first-hand what it's like to be a refuse collector in one of the world's largest tropical cities.
A popular member of Serco's Environmental Services team, working for Hammersmith & Fulham Council, Wilbur was chosen after an intensive and highly competitive selection process to take on the challenge of working in the 'Toughest Place to be a Binman'. And his visit to Indonesia introduced Wilbur to levels of poverty and living conditions he had never experienced before as he helped Imam on his rubbish collection round before undertaking the round himself.
"To say that it was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement," says Wilbur who is now back in the comfort of his own home and air-conditioned refuse truck in London. "It really was a very humbling adventure and I had never seen anything like it before. Imam and his family are such lovely people and they made me very welcome, but the conditions in which he has to live and work are just a world apart from here in the UK. His constant smile and incredible spirit in the face of such awful conditions were truly inspirational and will stay with me for the rest of my life."
As Imam introduced Wilbur to his day job, the BBC film crew followed them as they collected refuse from a hundred properties a day and cleared rubbish from blocked and foul-smelling roadside gullies around the streets of the Indonesian capital. But, as Wilbur found out, that wasn't the end of the story.
"Working during the day was hard enough in such energy-sapping heat," he adds. "It was a real shock, though, to see Imam then dumping the rubbish on a tip right outside of his home and then working late into the night sifting through the rubbish to salvage any materials for recycling which he can then sell in order to put food onto the family's table. Even though I have seen this for myself, I still find it hard to comprehend the life that Imam and his colleagues have to endure every day of the week and every week of the year."
During the filming, Wilbur successfully negotiated with the local authority to remove the waste from around the home. He also held discussions with the head of a local housing association who, subsequently, confirmed the first pay rise for Imam and his colleagues in many years.
Wilbur has now pledged to remain in contact with Imam and his family and, with the support of his colleagues in Serco's environmental services team working for Hammersmith & Fulham Council, he's now planning to send some additional safety equipment to Imam and his fellow binmen. "We certainly have a different perspective on health and safety here in the UK," adds Wilbur. "Having now seen the awful conditions that Imam is having to work under, everyone within the team here in London agrees that the very least we can do is to send him some clothing and materials to give him at least some protection from so many terrible health hazards."
Cllr Greg Smith, H&F Council's cabinet member for residents' services, said: "Wilbur's experience was a real eye-opener and proves that keeping the streets clean and tidy is vital. Leaving rubbish to pile up on the streets leads to unsanitary and dangerous conditions - that is why this council is continuing weekly collections, and why we have some of the cleanest streets in London.
"We are proud to have someone like Wilbur working in H&F. He is so full of enthusiasm and compassion, and is dedicated to his job - he really is a credit to our borough."