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Trade unions question plans to reform Brussels' waste collection service

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM : Picture shows a Brussels Capital Region Garbage truck and garbageman as they fill it with plastic trash bags (BELGA PHOTO JONAS HAMERS)
06:18 24/06/2021

Plans for the reform of the capital’s regional waste service, Bruxelles Propreté, were presented in the Brussels parliament on Wednesday. These consist of seven major objectives and provide for a new managing director.

Environment minister Alain Maron told parliament that he had briefly informed the unions about this on Tuesday, but the trade unions involved announced that they yet to receive a detailed version of the renewal plans for Bruxelles Propreté. From the information they had received, the unions claimed that several of the objectives included were unachievable for them.

"We only had a small information session yesterday, in which we were informed that a restructuring is coming, without a clear explanation," said Razia Omar, a delegate to Bruxelles Propreté for the liberal trade union VSOA. "We were not involved in the details at all." When asked whether the VSOA can live with Maron's proposals, she responded: "How can we accept the plan? That's like signing a blank cheque."

The Christian trade union CSC had a similar reaction. Secretary Stéphane Vercauteren had already voiced fears that the objectives would not correspond to the current work situation. "The minister wants to reduce the ecological footprint of the company,” he said. “That's hard because we're driving around with 850 polluting vehicles. Our buildings are also old and dirty, so we waste a lot of water and energy to keep everything dry and warm. You have to invest a lot in this or buy new buildings."

In addition, the CSC is sceptical about the government ambition of Bruxelles Propreté to be an "example organisation" in the field of health and safety at work. "Since the covid crisis, the management has reduced the number of employees on collection rounds from three to two waste collectors per truck,” Vercauteren said. “Now that the restaurants and markets are open again, the collectors have to carry heavier bags and walk more. There is no prospect of an adjustment to this yet."

Vercauteren did not comment on the change of management but did say that he wanted the new management, whoever it is, to make an effort to talk to the staff on the ground. "The workers often have good solutions and ideas, but we as a union were not consulted when drawing up this plan. The minister has not responded to our emails or questions for months."

The socialist trade union CGSP said it was surprised that a new director was being appointed. "For me, this should not be the case, especially if there is still a lot of money that has been initiated by the previous management," said the French-speaking CGSP chairman David Leirsberghe. "For example, the working days of the street sweepers have been adjusted by the management. The minister still wants to implement this."

Leirsberghe also hoped that the new management would actively listen to the staff. "In recent years we didn't feel heard. The director didn't listen to the ideas of his employees," he said. "Be an example employer? That's impossible. We only received face masks after five months into the corona crisis and even now, with the vaccination, we are not allowed to take half a day off to get our jab."

The CGSP is satisfied that job losses are not yet mentioned in the new plan, despite advice to consider this in the audit. "The number of redundancies has been higher since the beginning of this year than in previous years, which is worrying. So, we are still shocked redundancies will follow," says Leirsberghe. "Otherwise, the current plan is almost impossible: if they want to do fewer rounds and deploy fewer pick-ups per round, layoffs are a logical consequence."

Another rule that remains in place for the time being is the “fini-fini” rule. Under that rule, waste collectors are allowed to go home once their round is over, even if they have not yet had a full eight-hour working day. "We are not for or against that," the CGSP’s Leirsberghe said. "We will analyse it once we receive the full plan." The liberal union VSOA also said it would wait for more details before discussing the rule.

The Christian trade union CSC wants to keep the rule. "As a result, the collectors work faster,” said Stéphane Vercauteren. “Without that rule, they would never get their rounds done on time." Vercauteren added that the collectors do not pause or eat during their round. He denies this can create unsafe situations. "Most accidents at work are not linked to the fini-fini rule," he said. "The rule is in favour of the workers, but also of the population and the management."

Written by Nick Amies