Thousands of Environment Agency workers in England, including hundreds across the South East, are to strike for four days over pay later this month, blaming government inaction for putting communities, waters and wildlife at risk, says UNISON today (Wednesday).
Despite months of strikes and other action where workers have taken themselves off ‘on call’ incident response rotas, ministers have made no attempt to invite unions in for pay talks, says UNISON.
The union’s latest action means staff working on coastal sea defences, protecting communities from floods, tackling water pollution, waste fires and fly-tipping will strike from 7pm next Friday (14 April). They will be out all that weekend until 7am on the Monday morning (17 April).
Endemic low pay and uncompetitive wage rates mean the Environment Agency is struggling to hold on to experienced staff and recruit new employees.
This growing staffing emergency means the Agency’s incident response and enforcement teams are already too thinly stretched to keep England’s waterways sewage-free and communities safe from harm, warns UNISON.
The longer the government persists with its ‘do nothing’ approach to staffing problems at the Agency, the worse the situation will become, the union adds.
Several recent environmental incidents, such as a huge fire at a textile factory in Mansfield and the Poole Harbour oil spill show how valuable Agency workers are in dealing with serious pollution events.
But the government’s refusal to allow the Environment Agency to improve the pay increase of 2% plus £345 given to staff in the autumn means workers have no alternative but to reluctantly strike again, says UNISON.
Where there is a threat to life or property from major incidents like flooding, Agency officers will step in as emergency ‘life and limb cover’ during the dispute has been agreed.
UNISON head of environment Donna Rowe-Merriman said: “Every community in England needs these experienced employees to help keep their local environment safe.
“All talk and very little action best describe the government’s approach to environmental policy. Announcements come and go, but nothing much happens to clean up England’s seas, rivers, lakes, and canals.
“This must change. The government needs a properly staffed Environment Agency if natural habitats and water sources are to be protected. But with too few experts on its books, the Agency can’t possibly punish the polluters and keep everyone safe.
“Therese Coffey should stop ignoring the plight of these invaluable workers and start tackling the growing staffing problems at the Environment Agency.
“Hourly rates are so low, some staff had to be given an emergency pay rise at the start of the week or their employer would have been in breach of minimum wage laws.
“It’s time the government called in the employer and the unions to settle this damaging dispute once and for all.”
Notes to editors:
– The minimum wage went up to £10.42 an hour on Saturday 1 April. Prior to this, the lowest paid workers at the Environment Agency were on £9.53 an hour.
– Environment Agency staff belonging to UNISON have been taking some form of industrial action since late December. As well as action short of a strike, staff have walked out on two previous occasions – 18 January and 7/8 February. Members of Prospect are also taking action at the Agency.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.