Binmen revolt over alleged bullying, poor pay, low morale and staffing crisis
- Credit: Archant
Whistle-blowers within the refuse service of East Cambridgeshire District Council have spoken of an escalating crisis with staff shortages, no pay rise, diminishing morale and a culture of bullying.
In separate and independent interviews, the Ely Standard has been told of a growing avalanche of issues that culminated in one whistle-blower telling me “You are our last resort”.
Workers say the pressure has become intolerable with many going off sick, often with stress, mental health problems or injury.
“When we try to speak to management they simply say - ‘tough get on with'” said one.
“I have been here for many years but this is the worse I have seen it.”
Jo Brooks, director of operations at East Cambs Street Scene, the council owned trading company that runs waste and refuse, said: “We are shocked and saddened at the nature of these allegations.
“We are especially concerned that the individuals involved believe the newspaper is their last resort.
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“We have no record of any grievance – single or collective, formal or informal – relating to these allegations.
“What’s more, I have been in contact with the two recognised unions, neither of which have had any of the issues or concerns brought to their attention either.”
The refuse and cleansing team were transferred into East Cambs Street Scene, three years ago after the council decided to terminate the contract with Veolia.
Staff tell us driver shortages – one said they were eight HGV drivers short – and loaders are coming under “almost intolerable pressure” to get the job done.
They claim a promised pay rise of 2 per cent in April never materialised.
And they say that they are excluded from local government pensions and terms and conditions.
“As for morale, some of us have been here for 15 or more years, yet we’ve never known it as bad as it is,” said one.
“Basic pay is terrible and loaders, for instance, are on about £9.40 an hour or just over.
“As for drivers the basic is £11.58 an hour – compared to what is going on in the country it is little wonder we can’t recruit anyone.”
The whistle-blower said: “I am not a rebel but I look at what is happening and think it is not fair.”
Ms Brook said: “It’s important to point out that we have numerous options in place offering employees multiple opportunities to be heard.
“None of these have been utilised for these allegations.
“Informal processes include early morning meetings with all staff, monthly forums open to all staff and a management open-door policy.
“Formal avenues include union representation, a grievance and complaints policy and a whistleblowing policy.
“That aims to encourage employees to feel confident raising serious concerns promptly and ensures all concerns are taken seriously.
“Bearing in mind that this is the first time we have heard these allegations, we are carrying out a full examination of the facts but can clarify and correct the most salient points immediately.”
She added: “East Cambs Street Scene is three HGV drivers short and not the eight that is claimed.
“Secondly, at no point have drivers been told to do extra work outside of their contracted hours without being paid overtime.”
But the whistle blower said that East Cambs Street Scene had “changed the goal posts” and instead of working a 39-hour week, crews were being told to do extra work without overtime.
“We'll work our 8 hours a day but when you are going over on a daily basis, when Thursday afternoon comes you’ve often done your 39 hours,” he said.
“Legally then we can say we are not coming in on the Friday.
“What they are trying to do is make us do overtime when overtime is not compulsory. And they refuse to pay extra for overtime.”
He said sweepers used to keep the market and city centre clean and tidy but had not been out for months “and yet people are paying their council tax to keep Ely clean”.
And he accused the council of “just trying to sweep the problems under the carpet so to speak – they keep saying it is a temporary blip and things will get better”
The whistle-blower added: “Friday is bin day in Ely and if we don’t go in, the rubbish would sit there for the weekend. We already have a rat problem in part of the city so no one wants it to spread.”
He added: “You are our last port of call – we don’t have a union; we don’t have a voice.”
Ms Brook said: “Pre-Covid and the nationwide problem with HGV driver shortage, our full-time drivers averaged a working week of approximately 30 hours but were paid for their contracted 39.
“Currently our full-time drivers average approximately 35 to 36 hours a week. They are still paid for 39.
“If any do work additional hours – such as after Thursday and Saturday markets and Saturdays following bank holidays – they are paid overtime.
“This financial year this equated to £53,000 paid to drivers for overtime delivered.
“Thirdly, all staff received an annual pay rise in 2019 and 2020.
“The pay rise is not guaranteed and has not yet been agreed for 2021 as it is generally informed by the local government pay award.”
She said: “Current rates of pay sit above national minimum and living wage – with loaders on between £9.15 and £10 an hour, cage drivers paid between £9.71 and £10.91 and HGV drivers taking home between £10.59 and £11.58.
“Annual performance-related pay was introduced by ECSS in 2019 and allows employees the chance to move up their relevant scale and increase their hourly rate.
“In terms of allegations relating to the repairs and servicing of equipment, all ECSS vehicles and equipment are repaired and maintained externally.
“All heavy goods vehicles are maintained in accordance with the organisations operator’s licence and robust defect recording and reporting processes are in place.
“Finally, we are extremely concerned by the suggestion that management has not shown sufficient interest in grievances when none have been raised.”
Another whistle blower said he would “happily and willingly” share his wage slip with anyone who asked.
“My take home pay last week was £340 - as an HGV driver that’s pathetic.”
He said if anyone tries to make a case they are “put in their place”.
No matter what the issue “you argue back with management and you’re straight on a disciplinary.”
He said the switch from Veolia had promised much but delivered nothing and despite working extra and long hours, East Cambs Street Scene refused to pay overtime.
The whistle blower added: “So many are going off sick – it's little surprise”.
He said the work load for many loaders was “quite horrendous – today for example we had no crew across Newmarket and then Stretham and one lad had to load 13 to 15 tonnes of waste.”
“I've got a lad in his early 20s who has messed up his back already and messed up his shoulder.
“And they expect him to pick up 10 to 15 tonnes a day on his own.”
The whistle-blowers both agreed repairs and servicing of their vehicles had got worse since the contract changed.
Both agreed Christmas timetables being discussed would cause an outcry.
They felt the council’s senior management had not shown sufficient interest in their grievances.
One told me – he named the officer but we have withheld it – that at a meeting he was told we are ‘lower than a snake’s belly, as thick as shit’. That’s how they see us – as no good nobodies”.
He added: “I literally want to walk into the office and tell them ‘stick your job’”.
Most recently published accounts show East Cambs Street Scene had a turnover of £2.725m in the year ending March 2020.
It declared a net profit of £5,077.
Ms Brook said: “We now intend to work with our management team to remind all staff of the policies and procedures we have in place to support them.
“We will contact the two recognised unions and request regular meetings to stay abreast of any issues that have been raised.”
Ms Brook added: “We will continue to hold our regular staff forums and remind staff of their rights together with a review of the current policies and procedures to ensure they are robust and fit for purpose.
“We will continue our efforts to recruit HGV drivers and all other staff we need to deliver high performing services.
“To further combat the pressure caused by the current HGV driver shortages, we have accelerated our internal training programme of loaders to become HGV drivers.
“Currently there are two candidates on the programme with another two employees registering an interest.”
She added: “ECSS has committed to fund this training programme in its entirety at a cost of £3,000 per employee.
“We urge the individuals who have raised the allegations to contact us directly so we can address their concerns in more detail.
“We take all allegations of this nature very seriously and are disappointed that the many processes in place for us to explore their concerns properly have not been utilised in this instance.”
Lib Dem opposition leader Cllr Lorna Dupre said: “The council’s waste collection and street cleaning service are paid for and used by every household in the district.
“We all greatly appreciate the work done by the crews of East Cambs Street Scene.
“They perform an important and demanding public service in all weathers, and have continued to do so throughout the pandemic, to their very great credit.”
She said: “We are shocked and concerned at the news about the very low levels of morale in the service, none of which have been reported to the relevant council committee or to members of my group.
“We will be requesting an urgent briefing from the director of operational services on the matters that have been raised by East Cambs Street Scene staff.”