As diplomats at the UN climate summit in Glasgow this week preach about the need to curb both greenhouse gas emissions and mass consumption to protect the planet, the reality of today’s throwaway society can be seen just a short way from the conference’s doorstep.
Outside the gleaming centre of Scotland’s largest city, dumpsters and trash cans are overflowing. The city’s rat population has surged, with four garbage workers hospitalized because of attacks over the past five months. And litter is strewn across streets.
Mitchell, a senior official for the GMB Scotland trade union, which represents the city’s 1,000 garbage collectors among other workers, said they staged an eight-day strike that ended on Monday because they were tired of poor working conditions, lack of respect from management and low wages. It is a cry that has been echoed throughout Britain, the United States and other parts of the world, where essential workers who carried communities through the worst of the pandemic are saying they will no longer stand for being overworked and underpaid.
“We kept people safe,” said Mitchell, 45, who started working as a garbage collector when he was 16. “We cared for the most vulnerable. We cared for the elderly.” He appreciated the nightly clap for key workers during the pandemic. But now that coronavirus cases have subsided from peak levels, he feels the government has “abandoned low paid workers who have saved this nation.”
In parts of the city, trash is now collected only once every three weeks, down from once every two weeks about a year ago. That means garbage collectors, many of whom make less than 20,000 British pounds ($27,000) a year, have to carry heavier loads up and down steps.
On top of the less frequent collections, volumes of trash per household climbed over the past two years, a reflection of increased spending on takeout and online deliveries, according to Mitchell.
“The pandemic has created waste upon waste upon waste,” he said.
The city of about 635,000 has urged residents to reduce their waste to help protect the environment, but garbage collectors like Jack McGowan, 26, say that reducing collections is not an effective way to achieve that.
“The bins are always like that,” he said Wednesday, gesturing to several overflowing dumpsters behind a block of apartments in Scotstoun, an area west of the Glasgow city centre. “We need better pay. Respect as well.”
McGowan said he lives with his mother because he cannot afford a mortgage on his salary of 19,000 pounds a year.
He said he had already seen four rats jump out of trash cans that morning alone.
Glasgow promotes its recycling program and efforts to become more environmentally friendly. But McGowan said he saw examples every day of people putting nonrecyclable trash in recycling bins.
Garbage collectors said they were likely to strike again in the run-up to Christmas if they do not get pay rises. In a statement, the Glasgow City Council said that the leader of the council had already had extensive conversations with the union and that the “door remains open to all trade union colleagues.”
Fiona Ross, a council spokeswoman, said she could not go into further detail because talks were continuing.
Meanwhile, the delegates inside the COP26 summit in Glasgow say they are making some progress toward an agreement to avert catastrophic levels of climate change.
On Wednesday, the United States and China issued a joint statement in which they pledged to do more to cut emissions this decade and in which China committed for the first time to address emissions from methane. Separately, the United Nations climate agency released a draft of an accord that urged nations “to accelerate the phasing out” of greenhouse gas emissions.
But outside the climate talks, there is a mounting frustration over the disconnect between policymakers and those most affected by climate change. There have been daily protests organized by youth activists, who say that pledges by countries that they will commit to goals that are decades away is not enough.
“Nobody really wants to incur the cost of preventing climate change today,” said Sayantan Ghosal, an economics professor at the University of Glasgow’s business school. “They’re willing to do it tomorrow, but they’re not willing to do it today.”
There has also been a gap between world leaders and business executives on the one hand, who have talked this week about the urgent need for a transition to clean energy, and the working class people on the other who will be most affected by the rising costs associated with that transition.
Many of the lowest paid workers in society, including garbage collectors, are more worried about increasing prices of food, rent and energy than about increasing temperatures. They often do not have the flexibility to spend more on food and clothing that are more sustainable.
As the US economy picks up again, after a lull during the pandemic, people are quitting their jobs in record numbers, according to data from the US Department of Labor. There are 5 million fewer people working than before the pandemic began, and employers have struggled to find enough health care workers, waiters, truck drivers and butchers.
This has given employees newfound leverage and power.
The number of workers on strike in the United States increased in October to more than 25,000, versus an average of about 10,000 in the previous three months, according to data collected by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.
The shortages have disrupted Britain, which has struggled to find workers to make up for the thousands of European workers who left in five years since Britain voted to leave the European Union.
Mitchell, the senior union official, said that 20 drivers had left the garbage collection team in recent weeks for other truck driving jobs that are offering better pay.
Peter Welsh, a union spokesman, said Scotland needed to invest in the workers who will help deliver a transition to a greener economy.
“There are huge, huge challenges that I don’t quite think mainstream politics have begun to grasp and understand,” he said.
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