Harlow’s striking HTS workers say they’ve used foodbanks and taken second jobs to pay bills
News / Tue 28th Feb 2023 at 03:58pm
MUSIC echoes off the walls of Harlow’s Mead Park Industrial Estate, as passing cars honk their horns in support of striking employees from Harlow Trading Services (HTS) reports the Local Democracy Reporter.
Workers at the Harlow Council-owned trading company, which carries out environmental and housing maintenance, are demanding a one-off £3,000 cost of living payment.
But despite the cheers there was an atmosphere of frustration among the street cleaners, gardeners and other workers on today’s picket line (February 28).
Members of Unite the Union told the LDRS their colleagues had been using food banks and taking on second jobs to make ends meet. Others said morale is at “an all time low.”
Bosses say the payment would cost the company over £1million, which it cannot afford. Its first industrial dispute since it was set up in 2017, the company says 64 per cent of the workforce had turned up to work and it had been able to deliver the majority of services today and during two earlier strike days. Managing director John Phillips told the LDRS HTS was supporting its employees, including providing free breakfast facilities, and hoped boosting productivity would be a way out of the dispute.
In an earlier joint statement, Harlow Council and HTS said staff received a flat rate increase of £1,925 at the end of last year as part of a nationally agreed pay offer.
Further talks are set to be held this week. But some said they are not hopeful an agreement will be reached. In an earlier statement, Unite said more strikes will be scheduled if the dispute is not resolved.
“People are just fed up with everything going up and wages just standing still,” said Bob Walton, a leading arborist at HTS and Unite shop steward. “We’ve got people who are using food banks, no working man should have to go to food banks.”
Although he was not experiencing this himself, Mr Walton said some of his colleagues have taken up second jobs to top up their wages and that people are finding it difficult to feed their children and pay their rent and heating bills. He said: “You should be able to make enough money just at work, without working weekends as well, people finding work for the weekends to top their money up.”
He also said he did not agree with the company that it could not afford the £3,000 payment, and claimed to have “not heard anything from their side.” As a result, he is not hopefully a resolution to the dispute will be found soon. This, as well as what Mr Walton described as a “hands-off” approach from the council, has led to a feeling of being under-appreciated among some staff.
He said: “When something falls on your house, I’m the one that comes and saves you.” He later said: “You just feel demoralised. People don’t seem to work as hard because they’re just demoralised. You feel like the company doesn’t care about them, so why should they care about the company?”
Jason Kenway, an HTS leading gardener and fellow shop steward, echoed feelings of disillusionment. “Morale is at an all time low,” he said. He continued: “We’ve got people who can’t even afford to pay for membership of the union and they’re taking a day’s holiday just so they can show their support.”
Mr Kenway also said some employees are using food banks. He acknowledged the previous payment, but said this did not keep up with the current rate of inflation. According to the Office for National Statistics, CPI rose by 10.1 per cent in the 12 months to January 2023. Mr Kenway added employee’s pay grading and job evaluation systems are “all over the place,” and claimed they could have been improved when the national economy was in a better position.
Pay is negotiated nationally, but like workers in many industries, HTS staff say they experienced stagnating pay even before the cost of living crisis. Mr Kenway said: “We’ve had a few years where there’s been zero pay rise at all, and then the odd one per cent here, one per cent there, which doesn’t really cover anything at all.”
But despite the hardships, Jason says he is happy people are coming together and that the staff are striking to help everyone, including non-union members. He said: “It’s been a great turnout, people are getting more knowledgeable about what’s been happening and what’s going on.”
John Phillips, HTS Group’s managing director, told the LDRS there were originally four issues in discussion with trade unions. Of these three have been resolved, namely the job evaluation process, pay scales and out of fringe allowances. But provision for a cost of living payment has remained “a major sticking point.”
He said: “What the £3,000 means in terms of cost to the company is over £1m. The company doesn’t have that sort of money just stashed away to be able to pay that to employees, so discussions need to continue.”
However, he said he recognised some employees were struggling with affordability and said the company is trying to support them. For example, HTS has set up free breakfast provision for its employees, allowing them to come in before work and get free bread, fruit and other food.
He also told the LDRS the company wants to discuss with the union peoples’ ability to earn more through increased productivity and efficiency, as a potential way out of the dispute. He said: “We can’t afford to add cost to the organisation, but if we can deliver services in a far more efficient way and our people can be far more productive, then we can pay more money for them.”
Despite three days of industrial action, Mr Phillips said most services had been maintained, with essential issues covered by staff who had turned up to work. Should strikes continue, the company is prepared to use subcontracted labour to deliver services.
In recent months, the UK has seen waves of strike action across both private and public sectors, including from rail workers, nurses, teachers and postal workers. Dissatisfaction with pay and the rising cost of living is far from unique to Harlow.
“We do, as a nation, need to be able to find our way through this,” said Mr Phillips. “I recognise people not being able to afford a decent meal, making decisions as to whether they’re going to heat their house or eat, is not good is it. Whatever happens, there needs to be a solution.”
In an earlier joint statement with HTS, a Harlow Council spokesperson said in a statement: “The HTS workforce do a fantastic job and provide a range of important environmental and housing maintenance services for the town. We appreciate that the cost of living is impacting everyone, but a further pay increase this financial year beyond what has already been agreed nationally is not financially sustainable at this time. The industrial action will only involve HTS workers who are Unite members. Plans are in place to continue running essential services and disruption to residents will be kept to a minimum.”
What cannot be paid cannot be paid as many people in jobs are about to learn there is no money to pay these rises. Go check out the filings on companies house, there is no money in the accounts to cover this demand. Instead of being mad at companies they should be mad at the government who printed billions in the covid pandemic. This money creation is inflation, inflation is the increase of the monetary base price rises are the side effect. Maybe the unions might wish they had not tried to destroy the hated tories over covid and demanded more lockdowns and harder restrictions. All this comes from that time period (Ukraine and breixt are what politicians blame as they do not want to admit they caused the issue). Ultimately the unions and government caused this so be mad at them and especially the labour party who are supposed to know about things impacting the poor. Instead they threw them under the bus to along with workers. Things are going to be very tough for a long time, so to all who pushed covid, demanded lockdowns, did not question the insanity. Thank you this is all on you
It's amazing that money can always be found when it suits. For example, £249,866 can be found to pay the Chief Executive of Essex CC, £212,194 to pay the Executive director, place and public health, and £102,500 to £157,500 to pay 28 others at ECC. It's amazing that the excuse if a high salary 'to attract the best' only applies to certain jobs and not others. These are the essential workers who were being clapped for. Who provides a greater service to the community - street cleaners or the "Executive director, corporate and customer services"?
JD I agree those roles should be 70K max. I have never met anyone in the council who would last 5 minutes outside its sloth like pace.
If the HTS workers done some actual work they might not need to use food banks, the ones in staple tye just sit around the shops all day doing sod all
If Jason Kenways comments about job evaluations and grades being in consistent are correct (They are)HTS should have the courage to bring in an independent company to evaluate jobs. I suspect there will be those who have made deals and are being over paid. If this issue was dealt with then there might be quote wriggle room to pay more to those who are under paid
But the government has money to fund the war in Ukraine. Send over arms and tanks etc , when it can’t afford to feed its own people. Yeah let’s throw money at a war, which isn’t even our war and watch everyday people struggle to hear and eat. This government needs to go.
HM the government has no money it is just printing it , the only reason we pay taxes is to control inflation. But I agree the war in Ukraine is dodgy as it comes.
HM and Adam, you are the imbeciles that allowed Hitler to March into Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. We have to stop Putin now, you morons!
Dave NATO says otherwise, ukraine is a mess and we are just as guilty but I suspect you do not want your world view shattering that the west is not always the good guys
Dave and Adam. What has your remarks got to do with HTS. If the public in Harlow stopped throwing there litter on the ground and took it home with them there would be less need for litter pickers.
They are probably paid well enough for the minimal hours they work. Plus they receive a generous final salary pension which is funded by the taxpayers at up to 28%. Workers in the private sector don't have pensions anywhere near as generous after Gordon Brown made the schemes so expensive private companies closed them. Workers in the private sector are facing the same hardships but just have to get on with life. Perhaps HTS employees need to learn to budget and maybe pack in smoking and drinking if they are struggling to feed themselves.
While printing too much money is driving the current financial crisis, the reason we are all feeling so much financial pain is because the government is taking all you earnings in tax. Historically a basic rate tax payer payed about 33% of earnings in tax. Since 2000 that has increased to 48-49%. The left like to blame the rich, but the richest organisation is the government. The government is there to keep us poor now days. They take nearly 50% of what you earn if you are a basic rate tax payer and 20% of what you spend. Think about it! Living standards have fallen due to increases in taxation, not because your boss is keeping the profits for themselves. Oh and as an aside, that 22 billion in profits that BP made, equates to a 6% profit on global activities and the government gets 75% of that in tax