From Wiltshire to Worthing and Barrow to Eastbourne, something has been invisibly sweeping the UK. In just the first three months of 2022, the GMB union alone has been involved in at least seven industrial actions for bin workers. Last year, the figure was even higher, with major strikes in Glasgow and Brighton. Across the country, there’s a sense that the workers who provide this vital service are done with being ignored.
In the seaside town of Worthing, the strike comes down to one thing: pay. Tribune understands that the average bin loader and street worker in the southern region can expect to earn between £17,000 and £19,000 a year, thousands of pounds less than the median UK salary of just over £31,000. That figure can vary by a few thousands from area to area, but it’s rare to find refuse workers earning wages anywhere near that national average. In many cases, refuse workers in Worthing, and neighbouring Adur, which is also part of the strike, haven’t seen a pay rise since 2018.
The only deal currently offered by the council is a six percent rise over four years, essentially a 1.25 percentage point rise each year, the union says, which means a couple of hundred pounds a year for the average loader. GMB is instead asking that all workers be moved up a pay scale—but as Gary Palmer, GMB’s Southern regional officer, tells Tribune, any increases in that vicinity have been dismissed by the council as ‘unrealistic’.
‘It’s about the way we’re treated,’ Palmer says. Ben, one of the sixty-odd GMB members among the sixty refuse workers on strike in Worthing, and a refuse worker for a decade, echoes his sentiment. ‘It feels like we’re school children, not full-grown adults.’
Refuse workers are now in the unenviable position of being some of the lowest paid staff in the UK in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Inflation hit 6.2 percent in February, the highest rate since 1992. Petrol prices are reaching record highs while households are expected to see their gas and electricity bills go up fifty-four percent this month, equating, for the average household, to about an extra £600 a year.
‘Everyone is struggling right now—everyone is weighing up what to pay for and what we can go without,’ explains Ben. ‘I’ve got two young children, one at school, one starting in school, and that’s a burden. Energy prices are going up now too. You’re working so hard to do the best you can for nothing.’
Laura, who joined the refuse team more recently, has three children to support. ‘I took this job because I really wanted it,’ she says. ‘The people that I work with, they love the job that they do, and they’ve worked here for decades without a decent pay rise. Things are just getting more expensive, and the wages don’t seem to reflect that. I can’t afford to not be paid more, as times change and the cost of living goes up.
‘A lot of people have been here for decades and they’re not in a position to leave a job now. They’re close to taking their pensions, and they need to see this through till they retire,’ she adds. ‘They’re struggling, they’re using food banks, they’re in rented accommodation, and can’t afford to get mortgages.’
In Barrow, meanwhile, the strikes came at the end of a long battle. Refuse workers there negotiate pay each year in March, with the current dispute tracking back to 2021. The workers had asked for a three percent pay rise, and were then forced to spend months in back and forth bartering with FCC, the private company that manages Barrow’s bin service, who refused to match that figure. (Forty-one percent of all refuse services nominally run by local councils are outsourced to giants like Veolia, Biffa, Kier and FCC—something that workers regularly feel undermines the quality of the service.)
But the vote to strike in Barrow wasn’t down to pay alone. As Michael Hall, the GMB organiser for the region, explains it, the workers also felt disrespected by the company. ‘The lads have said all along, if they just come back with the three percent, they would all quite happily come back to work,’ says Hall. ‘They’ve lost so much already.’
These strikes came after bin workers suffered through a dire pandemic. In Barrow, PPE provision was said to be pitiful; in Worthing, the situation wasn’t much better. ‘Everybody congratulated them for doing what they did with Covid. They went out and emptied bins, despite the fact that there was quite high rates of infection among them and their colleagues,’ says Palmer. ‘After that, they’re now thinking, “Yes, actually, we did a damn good job—we’re worth more.”’
The presumption by some parts of the public during the strikes, Tribune hears, is that militant unions and workers are going on strike for no reason. In Worthing, Laura says arguments to that effect are shared on social media or by Tory councillors, while strict social media rules limit the workers from putting forward their own stories. The caricature makes the unions out to be blindly ideological, the workers greedy for unfairly high pay.
The reality couldn’t be further from that. Most of these employees haven’t been on strike in years, even decades—in Barrow, the low pay and the impact of the strike is costing the workers so much that some are using a Gofundme page to stay afloat. The idea that it’s an easy choice feels as far from the real people at the centre of it all as you can get.
And both those issues cut to the core of the problem: across the strikes is a sense among the workers of being ignored. Despite being a vital frontline service, one that garnered claps and cheers during Covid, countless refuse workers say they felt like they were intentionally forgotten—and not just during Covid, but long before it.
‘It’s the strangest frontline service, because we describe it as one of the most visible-invisible services that you can get. You put your bins out, you go to work, you come home, and your bins are empty, as if by magic,’ says Palmer. ‘And you don’t think any more about the effort involved, the people or the service itself. At least, until that service stops.’