October 1st 2022
Tired of years of low wage growth, 130 rubbish drivers and loaders in Newham have been on strile for a second time since September 20 and will be until next Monday.
But Unite, one of the biggest unions in the UK, has not ruled out further action.
September has been a rough month. The plummeting value of the pound following the government’s spending and tax plan is now in the company of a gnawing recession, rising inflation and eye-watering household bills.
For one rubbish truck driver in Newham, all these squeezes are closing in on them like a vice, forcing the driver of more than 12 years to skip meals and rarely see friends.
They said: ‘We are striking for better pay. We all know how it’s going these days with the prices. Everything is up: food is up, gas is up, electricity is up.
‘We can’t afford to live like this. Someone is sleeping in his car as he can’t afford a deposit for a home. It’s really bad.
‘How can they expect someone to survive like this?’
Inflation is now teetering on double digits, rising 9.9% in August from a year before, with prices rising at about the fastest pace in 40 years.
This dragged-out sense of emergency is getting to the driver, they said, as labour unrest seemed like the only alternative to the life they’ve been living for months.
‘I only have two meals per day. I can’t afford breakfast,’ they said, adding that they know of people who now use food banks to avoid working on an empty stomach.
‘When I have my dinner in the nighttime, I don’t eat the next day at 12 o’clock or 2 o’clock. And I’m not the only one.
‘I know colleagues who only have one meal a day. And that’s unacceptable. They’re walking full-time and you can’t afford breakfast. Some people are even worse than me.’
As the cost of a typical supermarket shop spirals, the only thing on the menu for some refuse workers, the driver said, is ‘something just to fill up your tummy’.
‘We don’t have money for healthy food. Mainly rice, it’s cheap. Sometimes we cook plain rice with a bit of butter, and that’s food for us.
‘And what kind of food is that? No meat, no nothing on it. You just have to fill up your tummy or it’s empty.’
Union members claim that refuse workers in Newham earn sometimes thousands of pounds less than their counterparts in other London boroughs for the same work.
A waste and recycling loader in Newham earns £22,850 compared to £24,763 for someone in Greenwich doing the same work, for example.
Unite previously rubbished claims from mayor Rokhsana Fiaz that trash truck drivers have been offered a pay deal of up to 17.9%.
This would amount to a £950 pay rise only if they also work bank holidays compared to the £2,300 pay rise workers are picketing for.
Unite has also claimed Newham have offered 0% on workers’ basic pay.
The second round of striking came after 99% of members voted for industrial action from August 27 to September 3.
Council officials previously told Metro.co.uk they have offered the workers a ‘fair deal on top of a national pay offer’ which they claim would make staff the ‘amongst the best paid with other outer London Authorities’.
A pay increase wouldn’t change the driver’s life too much, they said, ‘but it would help by a lot’.
‘I don’t know how we’re going to survive this, and with winter on the way,’ they said.
Steve Edwards, a Unite regional officer who works closely with the Newham waste workers, said he’s seen some already debt-ridden staff borrow more to make ends meet.
‘The old adage would be that you work so you don’t have to claim benefits. But now [refuse workers] are looking at what they can additionally claim even though they have full-time jobs,’ Edwards said.
He added that rent within London is a thumping 15.8% higher than it was a year ago, while some workers say they can’t afford to travel to work, what with prices at the pump rising and travel cards eating into already threadbare budgets.
‘The days of buying sandwiches in a cafe for your lunch are gone. They’re bringing what they can and sometimes have to walk to work,’ Edwards said.
‘And not a short walk, a long walk, bearing in mind their job is walking or day with bins in their hands. It’s pretty dire.’
And the government can’t exactly be relied upon to help. Not when prime minister Liz Truss has promised a further crackdown on trade unions, Edwards said.
Truss said she will legislate to make it harder to go on strike, roll out minimum service levels on national infrastructure and tax the strike benefit members receive when they don’t clock-into work.
‘We had a mass meeting where we talked about the current attitudes from the government and is there any help on the way,’ Edwards said.
‘And, in fact, it’s a swift kick to the groin is what they’re offering workers fighting for better pay.
‘It’s never been a fair fight, but they’re about to make it even unfairer.’
Having worked as a local council representative for 25 years, Edwards said he understands if Newham council feels its hands are tied.
Local authorities have had to do what they can as core funding from the government has been slashed by £16 billion over the last decade.
Council officials have said that despite its ‘financial constraints’, negotiators have offered Waste and Recycling Team members deals that would see them pocket hundreds more each month.
They also claim to have placed a retention payment of £2,000 to all waste service lorry drivers on the negotiating table.
Edwards said: ‘In terms of the response from what Newham has said, about if we give pay rises to everybody what is going to happen? Well, this is a multilayered argument.
‘Local governments not properly funded. They need to use the money they have to prioritise people that need the most help. Like people on welfare.
‘The strange thing now is that we’re talking about people who are employed.’
Refuse workers certainly have a fair few reasons to strike, said the Newham Trade Council.
‘They need a rise in pay, in line with the rise in prices/inflation and they need to have the same wages as other refuse workers in other boroughs,’ the group of trade unionists living or working in Newham said.
‘Many people regarded the refuse workers as heroes during the pandemic for their work.
‘Unfortunately, clapping does not pay the bills.’
Metro.co.uk contacted Newham Council for comment.