Life on the other side….
Jon Mason, 38, has A-Levels, O-Levels and a formal teaching qualification. He also has a BTEC qualification in computer programming and is more than capable of building his own computer. Many of his colleagues can actually build their own PC’s Jon informs me; alot of them are “ex-army, qualified carpenters and engineers”, some are young and unskilled but the majority are in their mid-40s and have other skills. Not exactly your stereotypical vision of the people who are employed keeping the streets of Leeds clean. However, Jon is a driver/loader who is currently striking against Leeds City Council in a dispute that looks set to be mirrored nationwide.
Given the close contact with unsavoury things like rats and human waste this is not a job you would perhaps see as your ideal. How many reading this would be happy in a job where they are up at unsocial hours and likely to be met by leaping rats or scavenging foxes? How many would swap the comfort of a cosy office for a job where bin bags can break; spilling human excrement all down you? And how many people in such a situation would carry on working for a further few hours when given the opportunity to return to the depot and change their clothes? Not many I would wager; as Jon illustrates himself and many of his colleagues could choose an office job but choose not too because they are in the job they want to be in.
However, listening to Jon almost has me sold on the idea. He talks about the rapport that you build with people and how often “one of the lads will stay behind to talk to an old lady while the rest carry on loading”. This ‘social work’ side to the job goes largely unreported Jon says; the rapport is two-way; one time when a new wagon was doing the rounds and people came out asking what had happened to the old one, similarly people doing the rounds notice a sudden deterioration in a house on the round they do. It’s a job you choose to do because you want too; because you care and enjoy the rapport you build with people on a regular round. It’s also not a job just anybody can do; it’s fast-paced and 2/3’s of agency staff employed quickly depart due to not being able to“hack-it” and being “too slow”.
So, definatly not the ‘cushy number’ that propaganda would lead us to believe. Much has been made of the early finish that alot of staff on rounds actually enjoy due to the ‘task and finish’ scheme but as Jon explains things are not as simple as that. Frequently, finishing early is a reward for a long hard days work which can start as early as 5.20 in the morning. Jon starts his day roughly at 6.20 when he picks-up a wagon and then he works non-stop until 2 ish and his day finishes around 15.15 when he has dropped the wagon back at the depot. Jon does say that there are rounds where some people finish as early as 10.30 but willingly concedes that “this will have to change”.
Task and Finish encourages high productivity and it replaced a standard system of clocking on and off which as it included breaks and no incentive to work beyond the paid hours frequently saw work left unfinished. The council is still insisting that it’s 220 bins per-hour target is achievable and that this is supported by other cities collection rates but as we have previously seen this is simply not the case; the current collection rate in Leeds compares favourably with the likes of Liverpool, Newcastle etc and this is achieved with crews already operating at breakneck speed; frequently loading 2 bins at a time which goes against handbook guidelines. It also ignores the complications posed by things such as brown bins of which 1 in 5 have to be thoroughly shook to dislodge things like grass cuttings.
Council propaganda (see above), which incidentally is being printed and distributed by the Liberal Democrat party, also points to the ‘unacceptable’ levels of sickness which it neglects to explain this is part of a high level of sickness across local authorities as after 5 or 6 years service Local Authority workers are entitled to 6 months paid sick leave every 2 years. Of course, the propaganda also fails to explain the numerous failings of management both to manage sickness levels and deal with issues that cause genuine sickness and deal with the naturally high instances of sickness amongst manual workers. Jon tells me the story of how a bin fell off a defective wagon, struck a worker who lost their front teeth, yet it was sent out while still being defective the very next and subsequent days. Managements failures seem to be pretty endemic and there are clear structural deficiencies with no real opportunity for progression up a career ladder. Current structure is “top-heavy” Jon says and almost seems designed in a way that engenders the “mistrust” he talks about.
It seems to me the dispute has been deeply self-defeating from the councils point of view which does seem to have listened uncritically to management. The cost of the councils replacement service is coming close to the £2 million mark; recycling and waste management targets are now in jeopardy and the council could therefore face fines of up to £85 million pounds from the European Union. Hopefully, there will be a resolution soon; however, the political price the Liberal Democrats pay in Leeds is likely to be high. Put simply, the wrong judgement calls have been made and policy has given the appearance of actively seeking a confrontation with a group of workers with no genuine interest in a solution that progresses a situation and takes account of all interests and recognises legitimate grievance.