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Refuse strike ends after Mayor promises contracts to 50 agency staff

Waste collection will resume after Tower Hamlets Council agreed to a £750 pay deal with refuse workers, ending strike action on day nine. 

In a meeting on Monday 25 September, Tower Hamlets Council and Unite the Union negotiated a resolution to the refuse worker strike, which members voted to accept on Tuesday 26 September.

Refuse workers initially balloted for industrial action following the National Joint Council’s pay offer of £1,925 per annum, which did not keep up with rates of inflation and amounted to a real-terms pay cut. 

The refuse worker strike began on Monday 18 September, and was scheduled to last for four weeks. The resolution came on day nine of the strike, and waste collection will resume today, Wednesday 27 September. 

From Saturday 23 September, private waste company Bywaters was employed by the Council to collect waste during strike action. Bywaters will join refuse workers in the next few weeks to catch up on the backlog of uncollected waste and street cleaning as quickly as possible. The Council aims to have the backlog of waste cleared by Sunday.

Unite regional officer Nicholas West has confirmed that refuse workers are willing to work overtime on the weekends to clear the uncollected waste. He said:

‘Our members are professional and they take pride in their jobs. They’re more than willing to do what needs to be done.’ 

Unite members voted to end strike action after the Council agreed to award refuse workers a one-off £750 cost-of-living payment, as well as enhanced holidays from April 2024. 

The Council also agreed to bring 50 agency workers in-house by the end of December. 

From 2020, waste and recycling collection and street cleansing in Tower Hamlets became an in-house, Council service after previously being controlled by the private company Veolia. 

Since the service went in-house, refuse workers have expressed concern about inequalities in the workforce. While some had the benefits of a Veolia contract, agency workers lacked job security. 

One refuse worker, 57, who has been working in Tower Hamlets for three years, commented:

‘If you’re not an employee on a Council contract, you’re missing out on a pension, sick pay, and other Council benefits.

‘The workers on a contract with Veolia are seeing that their colleagues’ treatment has not been good. They’re doing the same job for less money. It’s just ridiculous.’

John Hicklin, 55, who has worked as a Tower Hamlets refuse worker for 10 years, commented:

‘The strike is more about the working conditions than the pay. We want equality for the people who are working.’

Since the Council took over waste collection services from Veolia, there has been concern about the effectiveness of senior management. 

Green Party Councillor for Bow West, Nathalie Bienfait, commented:

‘There is poor management of the routes and unequal workloads. There are some routes that take two hours, while other routes take four hours.’

In a series of tweets on Tuesday evening, the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman commented:

‘This was a national dispute, but it is clear that local dynamics played into it.

‘One part of the deal agreed today [is] bringing agency staff back in-house and establishing a working group to harmonise terms and conditions and reset relations with our workers.’

Refuse workers in other boroughs were also planning to strike following issues with the national pay offer. Refuse workers in Newham planned to begin strike action on Monday 25 September, but Newham Council successfully negotiated with Unite representatives on Friday 22 September, averting the strike before it began.

It remains to be seen whether this one-off pay award will be enough to rebuild trust between the refuse workers and the Council. A refuse worker commented:

‘We pretty much got what we wanted regarding recruitment of agency staff. Not a massive pay enhancement, but a few more days holiday.’

West commented:

‘The biggest win is that agency workers can no longer be threatened. They now have their pension, sick pay and holidays, like all other local authority workers in Tower Hamlets.

‘It’s something which has been pushed for since 2020 and it’s unfortunate that it took strike action to get it.’

The Council’s £750 one-off payment award to refuse workers raises questions about the Council’s remaining budget. In March, Rahman unveiled his plan to spend £40 million on public services in 2023, an increase of £20 million from Labour’s highest annual budget expenditure. 

The Council’s one-off payment to refuse workers might prompt other public sector workers to demand similar pay awards amidst the cost-of-living crisis. Bienfait commented:

‘The Council requires £40 million of savings to balance the budget. But paying workers properly is really important. 

‘The Council may be liable to settle some equal pay claims.’

Earlier this September Birmingham City Council declared itself effectively bankrupt following a £760 million equal pay bill.

Tuesday’s pay award to refuse workers in Tower Hamlets might prompt public sector workers to make similar demands, putting additional strain on the Council’s budget. 

Piles of uncollected rubbish outside the Salmon and Ball pub in Bethnal Green, during the Tower Hamlets refuse worker strikes in September 2023.
Photo © Social Streets CIC

For more on Council spending, read Mayor Rahman’s budget: anti-austerity triumph or expensive gamble for Tower Hamlets.

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