Should I stay or should I go?

Written by: Matt Clay | Published:

With Article 50 triggered, a two-year separation process is now under way to detangle EU regulation from the UK’s. What does it mean for the European workers in the industry? Matt Clay investigates

It may be coming up to the first anniversary of the European Union referendum, yet the topic of Brexit is very much still top of the UK waste agenda. Environmental policy might have played a small part in the referendum campaigning from either side, yet the fact remains: the EU is the source of, and a vehicle for, the majority of environmental legislation and protection in the UK.

With prime minister Theresa May triggering Article 50, the two-year countdown has now started until Britain’s departure from the EU. Many discussions, briefing reports and meetings are taking place to decide on the future of how Britain manages its waste. Should it adopt EU regulations or should it create fresh, new targets for the country to reach?

Discussions will continue at the highest level on regulation to ultimately drive what the industry does, yet this could be far removed from the day-to-day grabbing, picking and sorting of waste. For example, what will Brexit mean for European nationals working in low-skilled jobs in the industry?

Protecting employees

A known Brexit supporter, Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, believes the impact of Brexit will be insignificant.

“I do not expect it to have any considerable effect on recruiting new staff and little at all on retention,” he tells RWW.

Approximately 7% of Grundon’s team are non-UK citizens, to which the deputy chairman says: “I understand the government would like to protect their employment status; so would we.”

He says the biggest challenge in recruiting new workers is not necessarily tied to a Brexit or EU issue.

“There remains a shortage of LGV [large goods vehicle] drivers and it’s difficult to hire engineers and mechanics, especially in what is perceived to be a ‘dirty’ industry.”

For many others, the two-year “divorce” period between Britain and the EU means there remains a lot of uncertainty on the impact of Brexit.

Speaking to RWW, a spokesperson for the Pennon Group, parent company of waste management company Viridor, says: “The uncertainty around the detail relating to Brexit, and freedom of movement in particular, makes it difficult to forecast what impacts we are likely to experience post-Brexit regarding ongoing recruitment.”

Commenting on its own recruitment processes, the spokesperson adds: “Viridor currently recruits all its skilled and lower-skilled workers from workers already based within the UK, with this generating a mix of backgrounds and nationalities across the organisation. We expect this to continue to be our recruitment model; however, we constantly review the effectiveness of this approach to ensure we are best placed to recruit the right people with the right skills at the right time.”

As expected, other major waste management companies are remaining tight-lipped over the issue, with Biffa saying it is not issuing comments on this at the moment.

Migrant workers

The topic of migrant workers in the UK waste sector came under the spotlight two years ago when trade unions GMB, Unite and UCATT visited the Teesside Energy from Waste (EfW) plant.

Croatian, Punjabi and Polish interpreters accompanied the unions on the visit. GMB claimed that contractors for SITA and Sembcorp were “treating migrant workers deplorably” and “not paying anywhere near our nationally agreed rates”.

The union added that conditions on the site rode a “coach and horses” through national agreements. SSUK, the managing consortium comprising Sembcorp, SUEZ and Itochu Corporation, responded that the allegations were “disingenuous” and “erroneous”. Vowing to investigate the claims, SSUK said it did not control the employment of workers.

At the end of last year, a West Midlands plastics recycling firm made the headlines when a raid by immigration officers saw the arrest of seven of its workers. At the time the company said the workers were legitimate and it had carried out the proper checks needed. Director Robert Coup called on the Home Office to establish a database of illegal workers to help employers avoid such situations.

Plugging the gap

Ian Biggam is managing director of Ace Recruitment, which specialises in waste management.

“The waste management and recycling sector’s growth could be harmed by a lack of workers available,” he tells RWW. “We find that our clients are often seeking skilled plant drivers and engineers, and I fear this situation will only worsen the shortage unless we are fully prepared.”

He adds: “The sector often relies heavily on EU workers for the low-skilled work such as pickers in MRFs, etc. While there are alternatives such as ZenRobotics, these come at a premium. We also face the possible threat that demand for employment may decrease slightly as the UK’s decision to leave the EU will see investors in recycling technologies look to countries with less risk

“Regardless of Brexit, the industry has always struggled to attract new minds to the sector and promote its importance to young people. Companies are regularly plugging the gap by hiring EU workers, but that option may soon be limited.”

Charles Cocklin, team leader for waste for recruitment company Allen & York, adds: “The impact of Brexit on recruitment within the waste sector is largely unknown; however, the industry does employ a proportion of overseas labour. If Brexit were to make it more difficult for waste companies to employ people from overseas, with visa restrictions, for instance, then the industry would need to attract domestic workers, and to do this it would probably need to look at increasing salaries.”

Need for new infrastructure

Aside from operation, another substantial element in the industry where foreign workers supplement our own workforce is construction. Yet construction can only take place if investment flows through to fund new projects.

Consultancy Eunomia’s 11th issue of its biannual Residual Waste Infrastructure Review addressed the implications of Brexit uncertainties for residual waste treatment in the UK. The report addresses two eventualities: a soft or a hard Brexit. For the former, in which the UK maintains access to the single market, the country would aim for the same recycling targets as the rest of Europe: 60% by 2025 and 65% by 2030 in its Circular Economy Package.

In this instance, the consultancy says the country is “on track for the supply of waste treatment capacity to exceed the available quantity of residual waste in 2020/21”.

However, for a hard Brexit, where the UK sets aside these targets, the report considers a ‘worst case’ scenario for resource management, where UK residual waste arisings stay at
current levels, despite expected reductions in Scotland and Wales. Eunomia says: “This creates a difficult environment in which to plan for the right facilities to meet the UK’s needs, and the uncertainty could lead developers to consider additional investment in UK treatment capacity.”

“While we cannot yet say with confidence what form Brexit will take, a hard Brexit could mean taking a fresh look at our need for waste treatment infrastructure,” explains Mike Brown, managing director of Eunomia. “However, there is a risk that during the current period of uncertainty, the UK may invest in facilities that could hinder our ability to achieve higher levels of recycling.

“A soft Brexit is likely to see us still aiming for 65% by 2030. That’s still the direction of travel for the rest of Europe, and the result looks set to be a big increase in spare treatment capacity to be filled by RDF exports.”

Others believe unemployment levels will not help with a smooth transition from the EU. A government report on waste statistics earlier this year showed that the number of employees in the waste sector has fallen since 2012.

“We currently have the lowest unemployment rate since 2005 and people in work are more hesitant about moving jobs amid uncertainty,” adds Biggam. “Furthermore, with the weakening pound and lack of clarity being offered, it is putting some EU nationals off taking up roles in the UK, and we need a clear and cohesive post-Brexit visa strategy.”

There clearly remains a lot of uncertainty around the impact of Brexit. Depending on whether a hard or soft Brexit is negotiated by the country’s prime minister, the next 18 months will no doubt be interesting as Britain journeys towards independence and makes history.

Matt Clay is a freelance correspondent for RWW magazine

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