In a time of global crises, waste workers are our unsung heroes

A worker gives directions to the truck drivers at the country’s largest landfill at Fyli on the outskirts of Athens, Greece. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

If the global fight against Covid-19 made one thing clear, it is society’s complete dependency on essential workers, and the risks involved in these professions. As well as health and care workers who have rightly received widespread recognition during the crisis, workers in the waste and wastewater sectors were essential to public safety and the continued functioning of our communities.

Now, as has been the case throughout history, good sanitation can quite literally be a matter of life and death. The eradication of diseases such as cholera has relied on advances in sanitation just as much as advances in medicine. Covid-19 is no different. It has been shown that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted from both waste and wastewater. Not only is good waste management therefore key to stopping the spread of the virus, but sewage water can also be used to track the coronavirus and create early warnings for new waves of Covid-19.

Though often perceived as unglamorous, the crucial role of waste sector workers in society extends beyond sanitation and waste disposal. A more long-term and arguably bigger crisis we are facing is that of climate change.

As governments around the world realise the need to transition from a linear economic model of extraction-consumption-waste to a more sustainable circular economy, centred around the principles of recycle, reuse, remake, share, our reliance on the waste sector will only increase.

The European Commission set out its plans for the European Union circular economy in the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan. Given the fundamental importance of waste management for this new sustainable model, it is surprising that the plan fails to mention the workers it depends on. But despite being so fundamental to society, waste sector workers are rarely thought about, or accounted for in policies. This is made disturbingly apparent when looking closer at the conditions they work in and the hardships they face.

The hidden perils of work in the waste sector

One key part of the circular economy is changing the way solid and municipal waste is handled, and the European Commission has set an ambitious target for all EU member states to recycle 65 per cent of municipal waste by 2035. Yet the health and safety risks involved in solid waste collection are severe, as was made devastatingly clear by the deaths of three workers in the solid waste sector in Europe in February 2020.

In Montalvo, Portugal, a solid waste collection worker passed away after falling from the collection truck, a common workplace accident which has not been addressed by health and safety regulations despite the potentially fatal consequences. The other two deaths occurred in Zaldibar, in the Basque region of Spain. Almost half a million tonnes of industrial waste in the Verter Recycling Company landfill collapsed, burying the two workers. The body of Alberto Sololuze was found six months later. The body of his colleague Joaquín Beltrán has still not been retrieved. These tragic events demonstrate the urgency of enacting policies and legislation to regulate health and safety standards in solid waste management.

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The situation in the wastewater sector is similarly bleak. The benefits of water re-use activities for the circular economy are clear: treated wastewater can be reused in the agriculture and food sectors, and sewage sludge can be reused as a fertilizer. But again, little attention has been paid to health and safety. Research has shown that using treated wastewater in agriculture can also lead to serious illnesses such as diarrhoea, skin infection, parasitic infection and bacterial infection. For sewage workers, the high exposure to dangerous biological agents can cause serious health problems.

As Jan Willem Goudriaan, general secretary of the European Public Service Unions (EPSU) commented: “The design of the circular economy cannot just be based on environmental criteria. It must prioritise quality jobs which ensure the necessary health and safety standards. A model in which the lives and wellbeing of the workers are at such risk is far from sustainable.”

The role of unions

recent report commissioned by EPSU makes visible the different waste sector jobs, which are usually performed by vulnerable and marginalised groups of workers, who receive low salaries and few employment rights, despite the terrible working conditions and health and safety risks they face.

In Belgium and the UK for example, research has shown that work in material recovery facilities (where household recycling is sorted) is “hard, dirty, manufacturing work – the kind of low paid assembly-line working that largely disappeared from Northern and Western Europe with the flight of manufacturing capital to Asia”. The mostly migrant workers often work in a confined space for more than eight hours a day, with very few breaks, usually for minimum wage.

The EPSU report demonstrates the need for waste sector work to be made visible and formal, so that workers can be properly remunerated according to collective agreements, and their health and safety protected.

This is especially important given the current sanitary crisis, which has added to the health and safety risks. Although waste sector workers are highly exposed to coronavirus-contaminated waste and wastewater, many countries were slow to recognise the contamination risks and provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Trade unions have an important role to play in bringing together formal and informal workers in the waste sector to secure better and safer working conditions in the expansion of circular economy activities. This was done in Paris, where a support system has been developed between the public authority, formal workers and informal waste recyclers.

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The best way to ensure safe jobs and create fairness both for workers and for companies is through collective bargaining, as was recognised by the European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen in her recent State of the Union speech. In the last year alone, a number of public service unions in the EU have managed to negotiate collective agreements with employers, resulting in pay increases and better working conditions.

In February for example, the FNV trade union in the Netherlands negotiated a 12-month agreement covering around 7,000 workers in the waste processing sector. The agreement included a 3.75 per cent pay increase along with a one-off payment of €125. It also resulted in 200 workers on flexible contracts being offered permanent jobs.

In a world where many employers try to skirt around regulations, unions are also crucial for enforcing health and safety standards. According to the EPSU report, publicly operated companies with trade union representation are generally deemed to comply with health and safety regulations, whereas in smaller private companies, where there is usually no trade union representation, health and safety regulations are often ignored.

The limits of profit-making in the circular economy

The transition to the circular economy may open up a number of possibilities for financial gain, but profit-making is often incompatible with sustainability goals and workers’ rights. Our 2017 report Waste Management in Europe debunks the perception that efficiency and cost saving are synonyms, when in fact they are fundamentally different: “lower costs can simply mean a lower service or worse conditions for the workers delivering these services,” as the report states.

It provides several examples which demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion, privatisation does not increase efficiency. Competition between various private waste treatment providers instead results in ineffective waste management, promotes a continuous need for waste, and endangers the lives of workers. For the development of the circular economy, public companies which put people first provide an attractive alternative.

The circular economy is without a doubt crucial in a world of finite resources. But it cannot be left to private companies and the markets to exploit. The EU institutions and national governments need to enforce strict health and safety regulations to ensure workers and the environment are prioritised over profit.

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