Why Canberra's Garbage Collectors Are Taking Industrial Action

Release date: 24/05/2016

The Age, by Klaus Pinkas, 23 May 2016
When most of the ACT is still asleep in bed or hitting the snooze button on the alarm, local waste workers (garbos) are hard at work. They are out there every weekday morning, making sure our streets are clean and hygienic. But not on Tuesday.

The dispute, however, is not really about money. The heart of the matter is the issue of redundancy payments. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Just like they were on Monday, almost half of the ACT is waking up on Tuesday morning to find that their bins haven't been collected. The 39 drivers who empty the ACT's kerb-side collection bins will instead be picketing their own place of work, the Suez depot in Hume.
This wasn't a decision taken lightly by these garbos. It's their neighbours, mates and community who are inconvenienced by their action. They won't be paid for the two days of industrial action, meaning things will be financially tight for some of these families over the next few weeks.
These garbos, however, have been backed into a corner by a heartless multinational and a broken promise from Minister Shane Rattenbury.
Almost all of the garbos taking industrial action are raising or have raised families here in the ACT. These are local Canberrans who work hard, averaging more than 55 hours of work a week, including public holidays. They earn a decent wage for their hard work, meaning they can support their families. The money they earn goes back into the local community.
The company they work for, Suez Australia, is most definitely not local. It is the Australian arm of a massive multinational waste and environmental operator. Paris-based Suez Environment has revenues of 14.3 billion euros per year. It employs more than 80,000 employees across five continents. Paris-based Suez Environment has revenues of €14.3 billion ($22 billion) a year. It employs more than 80,000 employees across five continents. Singapore-based Sembcorp, which owns the other 40 per cent of Suez, has revenue which topped $9.5 billion Singapore dollars in the past financial year.
Suez Environment managing director Jean-Louis Chaussade even bragged to The Australian Financial Review last year that "we have €600 million to €700 million of extra financial capacity if we want to acquire some assets". This is not an operator in dire financial strait by any stretch of the imagination. This company won the Canberra contract by underbidding its competitors.
The dispute, however, is not really about money. The heart of the matter is the issue of redundancy payments.
Working in the private waste industry is insecure work. Every 10 years or so, the ACT government puts that contract out to tender. All types of operators come in and bid to win the contract. Two years ago the contractor changed, with Suez taking over from the previous operator, Cleanaway.
Redundancy payments had been set at three weeks per year of service in the old Cleanaway agreement. For drivers who have been working for decades on the contract, that makes a huge difference.
Mick was one such driver. A 30-year veteran of the ACT waste industry, he'd been picking up bins in Canberra since well before we had a chief minister or self-government. While he didn't take a single sickie whilst working for Cleanaway, the job had taken its toll on Mick's knees. He failed the medical required by Suez and was terminated. Whilst Mick would have preferred to have continued working, his redundancy payout at least made things easier for him and his family.
But if Mick had received a redundancy under the current Suez Agreement, then he would have received tens of thousands of dollars less than he received two years ago.
Back in 2014 we raised our concerns with then TAMS Minister Rattenbury, who guaranteed these local garbos that there would be no loss of wages and conditions as a result of the change of contract. That's not how it has panned out, however, and these garbos have had to take the matter into their own hands to restore their redundancy provisions.
In statements to the media, Suez management has claimed that these waste operators are well paid and so they should not be complaining. We do accept that these garbos have a good strong union agreement that ensures decent wages and conditions.
They don't, however, take kindly to having promises broken, huge multinationals winning tenders with low bids and then crying poor, and they especially don't wish to see their mates miss out.
These drivers work damn hard for their wages, making sacrifices so that they can support their families. All they are seeking is to be paid fairly for their work and, in the event they are made redundant, that their redundancy payments are the same as what they used to be.
So while our garbos don't take industrial action, with the inconvenience for the Canberra public that goes along with it, lightly, this is a fight for their future and their ability to support their families. Surely everyone can agree that's worth fighting for.
Klaus Pinkas is the ACT sub-branch secretary of the Transport Workers Union.

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