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31 March 2014

Rubbish conditions for waste management workers?

HesaMag waste recycling

Few would argue against improving waste management and increasing recycling rates, but jobs in this sector are often precarious and poorly paid. At the occasion of the launch of a special HesaMag report on working conditions in the waste and recycling sector on 27 March, the ETUI invited trade union officials, academics and NGOs to its conference ‘Green jobs – safe jobs’ to discuss the issue and see what needs to change.

The European Commission wants a recycling society by 2020 where waste is either avoided or used as a resource. This is a laudable aim and offers big opportunities for business and the environment.

“But in this euphoria, questions are not being asked about the social and human costs of greening the economy and moving towards a recycling society,” said Emanuele Lobina from the University of Greenwich.

Further, the situation seems to be getting worse with the “increasing privatisation” of the waste management industry. When municipal waste services are taken over by private businesses, a greater emphasis on competitiveness “puts pressures on frontline workers, who are often vulnerable members of our society,” said Mr Lobina.

But between public and private waste management there is “no difference in terms of efficiency,” he clarified. Outsourcing to private business therefore means “social pain and no economic gain”.

Working conditions in the waste sector across the EU are often “very harsh with people exposed to health hazards and plenty of accidents throughout the process from collection to recycling,” agreed Aida Ponce Del Castillo from the ETUI. She has interviewed many workers on the frontline of the waste and recycling business and relates some of their difficult stories in a special report for the ETUI’s HesaMag.

Speakers at the conference were united in their belief that newly created jobs in the sector should not be low-skilled, low-paid posts. Indeed, they urged a move towards more high-tech sorting systems to absolve people from carrying out some of the most menial jobs in the waste sector.

In the short-term this could mean job losses. But Jerry van den Berge from the European Federation of Public Service Unions said he hoped to see “new jobs created in consulting and engineering” with workers given the opportunity to improve their skills and carry out some of the new tasks.

Anne Beth Anthonsson from the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL) agreed. “We need huge improvements in technological development and there is a risk that we will lose some jobs, but it is not a good idea to keep the very poor jobs, such as the manual sorting of waste,” she said.

Laurent Vogel, senior researcher at the ETUI, said these workers are “invisible and left to one side”. He questioned the EU’s commitment to its environmental policies given the situation of workers at the heart of them. “We cannot have a serious environmental policy if we don’t look at working conditions,” said Mr Vogel. “Sustainability, the circular economy and other ecological goals are an illusion with current working conditions.”

He also called for much more joined-up thinking from EU policymakers. Mr Vogel suggested it was nonsensical to call for zero waste and then actively pursue economic and trade policies that will de facto create more rubbish. He wanted more “radical change”, with an emphasis on “collective solutions” across all policies to move society as a whole towards a more ecological way of living.

Sarah King, advisor at ETUC concurred. “We need a new path for Europe to change our course of economic policy and to move the EU to a system that pools its resources and invests in green jobs that benefit all EU citizens.” She called for a “new active education policy” to provide Europeans with the skills and training they need “to access stable and quality jobs”. Within such a policy, there must be a focus on health and safety, “especially in emerging sectors such as recycling”.

“Competitiveness is not the be-all and end-all,” she added. “Recycling and waste management services are in the public interest. Can we not look at the broader picture?” Ms King underlined that certain services, such as waste management, are vital for societies to function, and that their poor implementation poses dangers for the environment and human health and safety.

Download Powerpoints

Ann-Beth Antonsson: OSH in the green economy – a victim or an integrated aim? (pptx - 1.87 Mb)

Jerry van den Berge: Waste services in a green economy (pptx - 1.12 Mb)

Olivier Ervyn: Jobs and the environment in the waste and recycling sectors (pptx - 10.01 Mb)

Further reading:

HesaMag report: Waste and recycling: workers at risk (March 2014)

European Environmental Bureau: Report 'Advancing resource efficiency in Europe' (March 2014) - read also the news.

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