‘Poke your head above the parapet, you will be shot’: Bullying probe in council waste division as two dustmen kept off work for seven months

The depot at Folkestone Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

The depot at Folkestone Road. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Refuse workers at Newham Council have demanded the results of internal inquiries into bullying as management faces the prospect of a strike over back-pay.

The depot at Folkestone Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

The depot at Folkestone Road. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

At least 49 people recently signed a petition asking to see the outcome of recent talks with senior officers after a series of whistleblower complaints in 2018.

Two drivers - a father and son, one of whom is a union representative - have both somehow been kept on suspension and involuntary sickness absence since last October.

For its part, the council said it does not publish the outcome of complaints but takes allegations of unacceptable behaviour "very seriously" and recommendations would be shared "with the appropriate audience".

An ex-employee told the Recorder: "The refuse department is the worst. It has a big bullying culture and a high turnover. A lot of people are scared about coming forward and plucked up the courage to speak, and it feels like it's fallen on deaf ears."

As far back as August 2017 some 40 Unite members in the waste division brought a collective grievance against the council which referred to both bullying and pay grading.

Some 45 refuse workers are now being balloted for strike action over the pay issue and the results are due to be published shortly.

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But Unite regional officer Onay Kasab also said nothing had been done to address reported concerns over bullying.

He told the Recorder: "Working in waste services can be quite a macho culture. We've had issues elsewhere of threatening behaviour, or racism, or people not being paid.

"What's unique to this employer is six or seven of these issues going on at the same time.

Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said nothing had been done to resolve culture issues in the divisi

Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said nothing had been done to resolve culture issues in the division. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

"In 2017 staff were interviewed individually and people gave real-life examples of being shouted at and called names, and being put on the worst bin rounds as a punishment if they fell out of favour. Some were too scared to be interviewed.

"We finally got a report from the employer in June 2018. The officer said they could find no evidence to support or substantiate allegations.

"What they did say was they would work with the union to try to improve the culture. We have encouraged them to engage through ACAS. Surprise surprise, nothing has happened."

At a meeting at the Folkestone Road yard on April 17 this year, mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and new chief executive Althea Loderick heard from operatives again about bullying concerns.

In an email dated September 2018 one person had claimed refuse workers were "treated like second class citizens by management and residents".

Minutes from a union meeting held in July 2018 also note one senior staffer had "developed a reputation for being ruthless in relation to the volume of sickness and disciplinary cases recently".

On October 19 last year, a 56-year-old bin lorry driver was suspended over a gross misconduct allegation related to a reported altercation in Folkestone Road on October 18.

At least twelve hand-written witness statements have been produced by people at the yard claiming the incident did not take place as described.

Despite this, the employee remains at home on full pay, has since been diagnosed with a stress-related medical condition and despite still officially being investigated, was in February offered £7,500 by the council to walk away from the job.

At the same time his 25-year-old son, also a driver, was placed on sick leave by management on October 10 despite having a doctor's note stating he was fit to work.

ACAS guidelines state a period of suspension "should be kept as brief as possible".

A source in the refuse division said: "We've got two individuals who are both on garden leave and one case is strongly disputed by people who were there.

"If someone were in a coma, fine, but otherwise within a week or ten days you should gather your evidence and take the matter to a hearing or drop it."

"What you've got here is a forceful person who's quite sharp and might have been a great union rep. If you poke your head above the parapet in this service, you will be shot."

A spokesman said the council could not comment on individual cases but said: "Newham Council takes allegations of unacceptable behaviour very seriously and will investigate in line with agreed internal arrangements.

"At the conclusion of such investigations, it is the responsibility of management to review the outcomes and recommendations to decide on the relevant next steps."

Separately over the past year, several operatives have also reported potential health and safety concerns in the division.

One of these is an apparent technical fault present in a £4.2million fleet of 28 bin lorries the council bought in 2017.

In a video recorded by one driver, the pneumatic pins at the backs of the lorries slide when they are driven, leading to the back doors opening and rubbish falling out into the road.

Three employees confirmed they were aware of the issue, with one adding: "Those vehicles are still on the road. But management just say get the job done."

And since April this year at the latest, employees have also expressed safety concerns over the number of loaders on a round has been reduced from two to one.

A Newham Council spokesman said: "Any alleged breaches of health and safety legislation are always fully investigated and appropriate action taken.

"There are robust systems and policies in place to ensure this. No member of staff would be asked to undertake a task or duty that wasn't considered safe.

"The previous fleet [of vehicles' had come to the end of its life, maintenance costs were high and reliability was an issue. The new vehicles cost less to maintain and are more reliable."