'At Work' is a weekly column that takes a peak at people with unique professions, their living patterns and the changes the calling has seen in the years.

With a magnet attached to the end of a wooden rod, they rummage through garbage and roadsides to eke out a living. A community continues to exist in ‘iron age'— a job dependent on old iron pieces.

“I start my day at 6 a.m and work late into the night moving from one locality to the other looking for nails, pins, and rusted metal lids of bottles,” says M. Balu, a scrap-iron picker.

“Once we collect the iron particles, we remove sand from them, separate the iron dust, iron pieces and tin. Then we hand them over to the scrap dealer.”

Each piece and every particle they collect counts. “We pick five to six kilos and earn anywhere between Rs.60 and Rs.100 everyday, depending on our luck. Business suffers when it rains,” he adds. For every kg of old iron, they get around Rs.10 from the scrap dealers. Though most shops deal in scraps, they do not accept the iron collected by these iron ‘hunters.'

Threat

“They say that these are very small pieces and cannot even be melted. Another threat we face is that more and more scrap collectors have started picking iron pieces themselves,” says Janaki S., another iron picker.

“The rods with the magnets get damaged quickly and we buy new rods that cost Rs.50 every 10 days.”

But the gypsies, who are predominantly involved in picking iron scraps, have seen many transitions before they finally took to this vocation.

Ban on hunting

Traditionally bird hunters, following the Wildlife Protection Act's ban on the hunting of birds, most of the community members took to selling pins and mirrors on roadsides. “But people considered us filthy and did not let us set up roadside shops to sell these items. So, we switched to picking iron items using magnets,” says Janaki.

Viewed with suspicion

Scrap iron pickers like K. Selvam are also viewed with suspicion by the police and public. “Today morning, when I was hunting for iron pieces along a street, a shopkeeper confiscated my magnet and asked me to leave the place, fearing that I would steal from his shop. No one is ready to employ us as maids or coolie workers for the same reason,” he says.