Waste and Recycling: Workers at Risk

Thursday, May 15, 2014
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The European Trade Union Institute, in collaboration with EPSU, has dedicated the latest edition of its health and safety publication, HesaMag, to the European waste and recycling sector.

This sector is having to meet the challenges posed by globalisation and the growing demand for reusing and recycling waste. The sector is clearly reorienting itself away from disposal (“How to get rid of waste?”) to reuse (“How to make the most of waste resources?”). This ‘green transition’ demands changes in both work organisation and the characteristics of the jobs in the sector.

In Europe, two thirds of waste-management companies are publically funded, but the role of the private sector has grown due to sub-contracting out collection and sorting of domestic waste. However, since the mid-2000s, there have been moves back towards the public-sector in collection contracts in Germany, the UK and France.

Since the crisis in 2008, French multi-nationals Suez and Véolia, both leaders in the waste-management market, have developed cost-cutting strategies, by slashing overtime and not replacing workers who have left the company.

With the aim of tackling environmental problems, the European Commission has set out its objectives for waste-management in its Europe 2020 strategy.  The potential for job creation is key. According to a study conducted by the NGO Friends of the Earth, 50,000 new jobs could be created in waste management n Europe.

For EPSU and the wider trade union movement, these issues present some major challenges: unionising workers in the sector, improving working conditions, and workers’ health and safety.

In the UK, for example, the waste management and recycling sector has the highest level of work-related accidents. In 2012-13, 12 workers lost their lives, a figure that is 16 times higher than the cross-sector average in the UK, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

In Italy, risks have grown and working conditions have worsened for the rubbish collectors. In order to not raise costs due to the implementation of waste sorting, the number of workers has remain unchanged yet the quantity of work has quadrupled.

The participation of workers and trade unions in this ‘green transition is vital to guarantee the sustainability of these new jobs. Social dialogue is a means of achieving a structural involvement of the workforce in this changing industry. 

You can read this edition of HesaMag here, in English and French.