‘It beggars belief’: Bin men raise grievances against Newham Council as driver suspended for 15 months
PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 March 2020
Strike action could be back on the table in Newham Council’s refuse division where at least six dustmen have been kept off work.
Last January the council carried out a "culture audit" of the service after up to 50 staff complained about working conditions, pay and alleged bullying.
It led to a review of the terms and conditions but unions say significant changes have still not been implemented 12 months later.
At the same time, a 57-year-old dustcart driver and ex-union rep has now been suspended on full pay for 15 months.
His 26-year-old son quit in January after being kept on involuntary sick leave for 15 months, while another team of three was suspended on full pay in July 2019.
The Recorder understands a sixth person was suspended earlier this month, just weeks after raising a fresh grievance.
Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said: "These suspensions have been for far too long, regardless of who is right and who is wrong.
"The guidelines from ACAS are absolutely clear: any suspension should be for the absolute minimal period. We are talking about a few months at most. Fifteen is ridiculous.
"We are also suspicious that people who were involved in the negotiations to resolve the last dispute have now faced disciplinary measures."
Paying the wages of these five drivers and loaders alone will have cost the council £106,000 so far - before back-filling any of the positions with agency staff.
The crew suspended on July 29 last year includes a 56-year-old driver and two loaders who were alleged to have collected too much rubbish from two shops in Stratford and Forest Gate.
An investigation concluded in October 2019 but at the start of February 2020, none of the three had either had their case dropped or been sacked.
While suspended, staff cannot take on other work or work overtime shifts, which Mr Kasab said some employees relied on to make ends meet.
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He added: "There have been cases that have gone to employment tribunals which state that if you suspend someone, it can count as a detriment."
The first mass grievance in the refuse division was filed in August 2017 and addressed at a hearing in September 2018.
Last January's "culture audit" explored a welter of allegations by some staff, including incidents of racism and harassment, a "toxic" working environment, unsafe working and people being placed on difficult rounds as a form of "punishment".
But others did not express the same concerns and, the consultant wrote, the workplace at Folkestone Road was "generally described as an improving environment".
An employee at the depot told the Recorder that in their view, some staff were afraid to speak out.
They said: "A lot of people don't know who to trust. As far as I'm aware no action has been taken since that report and it's still going on. It's a schoolground mentality.
On the suspensions, they added: "It beggars belief. I really don't know why it's taking so long."
Last June 45 Unite members threatened to go on strike claiming to be owed £20,000 collectively in back-pay.
The action was called off but at least five people are understood to have filed additional grievances in January and February this year.
Mr Kasab added: "We were given promises to resolve the last dispute, which chiefly included pay grading, and there were issues raised within it about discrimination and bullying.
"As part of the resolution there was supposed to be work done to improve those relationships.
"In light of what has happened with disciplinaries and grievances, and poor relations all over the place, we could be going back and looking at industrial action again.
"Pretty soon we are going to go back to our membership and ask if they expect action."
A Newham spokeswoman said: "A review of practise and culture within the service was carried out and the council is now considering the results, in conjunction with the unions, and will consider what changes might need to be considered in the future.
"We are unable to comment on individual cases, some of which we are still actively working to resolve."