Bosses are using the global economic crisis to turn the screws on workers. But Sheffield recycling workers are on all-out strike, refusing to take any more of management’s rubbish.
“We were told by management to ‘piss behind the back of the skip there’,” said Jim, who works for Green Company, a subcontractor to Sheffield City Council.
His job is to process all manner of recycling waste.
“There’s no toilet or shower facilities, which we need when we’re handling acids,” he said. “How many times do we have to put this in writing?”
Across five depots in Sheffield workers face harsh working conditions—and winter is coming.
Antony has worked for the company for six years. He explained to Socialist Worker the reality of their working conditions.
“In the winter the water would freeze up, so we couldn’t get a cup of coffee or go to the toilet on all five sites,” he said.
“But under immense pressure, we got proper facilities on the three main sites.
“However, management wouldn’t touch the satellite sites—the Deep Car site still has no shower.
“The lads can’t wash off if they’ve have been working with chemicals or excrement.”
But it’s not just the lack of proper toilet and shower facilities that is a problem. Workers said the situation is made much worse by bosses’ failure to provide adequate work clothes and equipment.
Chris hasn’t worked in the company as long as the others, but he knows full well what it means to work in the terrible conditions.
“I had no gloves for ages, so I had to use old ones,” he said. “I was given one pair of trousers for a whole week—and sometimes I’d be working six days a week.”
James agreed. “I haven’t had gloves for a while now,” he said.
“Veolia used to supply Personal Protective Equipment suits, but this one doesn’t even do that.”
Despite the upgraded toilet and shower facilities workers still face problems. “There’s no wash-off period, on top of the inadequate washing facilities," said Dean.
“Yes, we’ve got upgraded washing facilities on the three main sites, but on the other two the lads have working conditions like ten years ago."
Management tried to placate workers on the two satellite sites by installing portacabins, but both are empty.
There still aren’t any toilet or shower facilities—and in winter the water will once again freeze.
Terrible working conditions are one of the underlying reasons behind the walkout, but they are also part of bigger problems in the way the firm is being run.
“You can’t get anything out of management,” said James. “Pay slips—when do most people get them? Before they get paid.”
“But we don’t get it till three days later sometimes,” chimed in his workmate.
Management are now trying to use it as a tactic to break the strike.
“I haven’t had one in four weeks,” said James. “We were supposed to get September’s bonus this week, but they’re keeping it back”.
It’s one of the many ways management is putting pressure on workers to get back to work.
Bosses told one worker who’s been there for two years that they’d “look after him” if he went back in. But there is one thing that runs throughout the dispute that makes the workers angry.
“Management was generally bullying—they just did what they wanted,” explained James.
“You’d be on the rota all week and Saturday would be your day off. But then they’d put you on that day and you’d have to let down your kids.
“We have to give them six months notice for holidays, but they can give us less than six hours notice to work.”
Dave agreed. “We work weekends and unsocial hours, but we’ve never been paid proper rates,” he said.
“And when they call us in it’s very obvious that they are talking down to us.”
These sorts of attacks led to a series of one-day walkouts in October. “We worked to rule, then had strikes, but it had no real effect on the service,” said Dean.
Facing all these issues has made workers question the way the company is being run.
The Green Company is owned by the Salvaire charity. It subcontracts from Veolia Environmental Services, which runs Sheffield City Council’s recycling services.
This is the logical outcome of the outsourcing model.
It’s a scam based on slashing hours, wages and jobs while hiving off the profits—and subcontractors even outsourcing the work themselves drives this further.
Things came to a head in the company when Martine Laffan-Butler became the new boss following much boardroom wrangling.
Antony explained what Laffan-Butler’s new slash and burn policy would mean for the workers.
“Laffan-Butler didn’t agree with the Living Wage that the old finance director Sharon Lowrie had negotiated for us,” he said.
“She pushed the senior management team out, including Lowrie who now supports the workers at the centre of the dispute.
“We came into work and found the management team gone—then Laffan-Butler turned her forces onto the rest of us.
“If we continue to work for her all she would do is get free labour, in order to get even more for herself.
“Laffan-Butler would want to just rely on probationary workers—she’d employ a foreman and an assistant while the rest would be free labour.”
This is what led to the series of one-day walkouts in October, but now they’ve escalated to all-out action.
“We had to escalate because nothing was getting done,” said Chris. “Laffan-Butler wouldn’t meet with the union at the agreed times and wouldn’t talk to us at all.
“It’s got to the point now where it’s us or her.”
One incident in particular led to an outburst of anger following one of the 24-hour walkouts and pushed the Green Company workers to go indefinite strike.
James said, “They pushed other disabled workers—some with autism—into disciplinaries.”
Gordon explained what happened. “The kid who was running the site had mental health problems. The manager came up to him the day after the strike and started laying into him.
“The other disabled workers were getting really upset. We had a number of calls from other sites, but we couldn’t get through to the GMB union organiser because he was away.
“So we decided that we had to walk out for two hours.”
Chris said, “I’ve not struck before, but I’m going to stick up for what’s right. When someone’s getting bullied we’re all as one.
“We all wouldn’t be taking action if they hadn’t pissed us off so much.”
Workers held lively picket lines and were in a buoyant mood. Management are trying to use scab labour, but only two workers who aren’t in the union are working.
It’s an all-out strike about pay and working conditions. But it's also beginning to raise questions about the outsourcing scam that so many workers are being attacked with.
Their action is solid, but management is doing its best to break the strike.
Every trade unionist needs to build solidarity for the Green Company strikers who are spearheading the fight against outsourcing in our public services.
Solidarity can help them win.
Some workers’ names have been changed
Firm has the cash to pay workers
Recycling workers in the GMB union in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, are on indefinite strike. They are in dispute over pay and working conditions, but are at the forefront of resisting much bigger attacks.
Employers are suppressing wages and tearing up terms and conditions to maintain profit levels.
The Skills and Employment Survey 2012 reported a sharp intensification in work during the last decade.
The last time there was a sharp rise was during the mid to late 1990s. Bosses have always used recessions to ramp up the pressure on workers.
When stripped of management’s “human resources” jargon, it’s always been about squeezing more and more out of workers through cutting workplace rights and facilities, downsizing and outsourcing.
That’s precisely what’s happening here. It’s obvious to workers that there’s plenty of money to meet their demands.
Green Company director Martine Laffan-Butler was paid £10,085 expenses last year.
Meanwhile Roughly Translated Ltd, where she’s also a director, was paid £45,146 in consultancy fees by the Green Company.
The union is trying to pressure the Labour-run council to intervene. Workers put questions to a full council meeting last Wednesday, but they weren’t answered.