An ongoing dispute between refuse workers in Bexley and their employer, Serco, is reaching its climax. The refuse workers, who have provided this service through thick and thin during the pandemic, have thrown down the gauntlet. Enough is enough.
Organised through Unite the Union, the Bexley workers have twice voted for strike action since the beginning of 2020. But on both occasions, they decided to postpone the strike.
The first time round, the workforce decided not to strike in order to maintain their essential service in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
The second time, in July of last year, the strike was called off after Serco bosses backed down and accepted some of the workers’ demands around wages, sick pay, bullying, and health and safety.
Despite this partial victory, Serco has predictably pursued other dirty tricks in order to maximise their profits and intimidate their workers. As a result, the latest ballot for strike action has gone ahead – and the mood is even more militant than before.
Refuse workers and street cleansers in Bexley are currently balloting for strike action over a culture of bullying in the workplace, widespread use of zero-hours contracts, the contractor reneging on previous uplifts and a ‘pay offer’ that will leave us worse off than before. pic.twitter.com/QoEWpoA6PR— Bexley Strike (@StrikeBexley) June 23, 2021
Pressure and profits
Under pressure from below, Bexley Council has announced that it will not be renewing the contract with Serco.
Rather than bringing the service back in-house, however, the council is looking to another private company to run things. From this October, the service will be taken over by Countrystyle Recycling for an eye-watering £12.8 million per year.
For now, the workers are still employed by Serco, until the council’s new refuse services contract begins later this year.
Now that the outsourcing giant has nothing left to lose, they will try to squeeze as much profit out of the workers as they can in the next few months.
It's time for @LBofBexley to sort this mess out! The council says it is desperate for the dispute to be resolved, but if it is serious then it needs to stop hand wringing and force its contractor into line. #BexleyStrike pic.twitter.com/50EVRbLsAF— Unite London & Eastern (@UniteLondonEast) August 11, 2021
In response, Unite officials have rightly said that the strike could continue until the end of October, leaving Serco bosses unable to deliver their contracted services.
This bold approach has forced the council to intervene. Bexley Council has made a commitment that the refuse staff will be transferred over from Serco to the Countrystyle contract, and will receive the London Living Wage.
This would only be a modest increase from their current wage of £10.25 per hour. But the promise of job security is a win.
For their part, Countrystyle is promising to treat their staff in a better fashion than Serco did – but this is not exactly a tall order.
Nothing should be taken for granted. Workers should have no trust in any of these outsourcing bosses, who are all out to make a profit at the expense of their workforces.
Bexley Council has been passive at best, and treacherous at worst. Their contract with Serco could have been used as leverage to defend workers and local residents. Instead, they have simply let Serco’s contract run its course.
This means that the council has ended up paying Serco in full, while the company’s bosses continue to put the squeeze on the workers.
“A big question has to be raised about the quality of the service that Serco provides. Late collections, crap deliveries, zero-hours contracts and a staff that are demoralised and badly paid.— Justice For Refuse Workers & Cleansers (@justice4refuse) June 14, 2021
Pay more, get less. And meanwhile Bexley Council shovel our taxes into a Serco pockets pic.twitter.com/cLMsJBKa3X
The fact that Serco are no longer being trusted with the service is not down to any of the councillors, but is thanks to the organisation, actions, and militancy of the workers themselves.
Any minor concession gained is the result of their determined struggle, which has demonstrated why such services can’t be left in the hands of private plunderers.
Only under public ownership and workers’ control – with such services brought back in-house, as part of an overall economic plan – will workers and public services be safe from vultures like these.