GLASGOW, Scotland— In Gaelic, “Glasgow” translates to “dear green place.” It’s a nod to the parks, gardens, and flourishing green spaces that are all over the city. But according to Chris Mitchell, who was a garbage collector there for more than two decades, the only thing flourishing in Glasgow these days is “a mountain of garbage.”
While diplomats at the UN climate summit in Glasgow this week preached on the need to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and mass consumption to protect the planet, the reality of today’s consumer society was dimly perceived. distance from the conference entrance.
Outside the gleaming center of Scotland’s largest city, trash cans and containers are overflowing. The city’s rat population has risen: four garbage workers have been hospitalized for rodent attacks in the past five months. Garbage is strewn on the streets.
Mitchell, a senior official with Scotland’s GMB union, which represents the city’s 1,000 garbage collectors, among other workers, said they had organized an eight-day strike that ended on Monday because they were fed up with poor working conditions, the lack of respect from management and low salaries. That claim has been echoed across the United Kingdom, the United States and other parts of the world: Essential workers who burdened communities during the worst moments of the pandemic say they will no longer tolerate being exploited and paid little.
“We kept people safe,” said Mitchell, 45, who started working as a garbage collector when he was 16. “We take care of the most vulnerable. We protect the elderly ”. Mitchell welcomed the gesture of the nightly applause dedicated to essential workers during the pandemic. But now that coronavirus cases have subsided, he feels that the government has “abandoned the low-paid workers who have saved this nation.”
In some parts of the city, garbage is now collected only once every three weeks. About a year ago, it was collected once every two weeks. That means garbage collectors, many of whom earn less than £ 20,000 ($ 27,000) a year, have to raise and lower heavier loads.
In addition to less frequent collections, the volume of garbage per household has increased in the last two years. It’s a reflection of increased spending on takeout and delivery from online shopping and ordering, according to Mitchell.
“The pandemic has created waste and more waste,” he said.
The city of about 635,000 people has asked residents to reduce their waste to help protect the environment, but garbage collectors like 26-year-old Jack McGowan say reducing collections is not an effective way to do this.
“The dumpsters are always like this,” he said Wednesday, pointing to several overflowing dumpsters behind an apartment complex in Scotstoun, an area west of Glasgow city center. “We need to be paid better. And also respect ”.
McGowan said she lives with her mother because she can’t pay a mortgage on her £ 19,000 a year salary.
In addition, he assured that he had already seen four rats jump out of garbage cans that morning.
Glasgow promotes its recycling initiatives and programs to be more environmentally friendly. But McGowan said that every day he saw people dumping non-recyclable garbage in recycling bins.
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Garbage collectors said they would most likely go on strike again in the run-up to Christmas if they did not receive pay raises. Through a statement, the Glasgow City Council said that its higher authority had already had extensive discussions with the union and that “the door remains open for all fellow union members.”
Fiona Ross, a spokeswoman for the City Council, said she could not give many details because talks were still ongoing.
Meanwhile, delegates within the COP 26 summit in Glasgow said they were making some progress towards an agreement to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change.
On Wednesday, the United States and China issued a joint statement in which they pledged to do more to reduce emissions this decade and in which China pledged for the first time to tackle methane emissions. On the other hand, the United Nations climate agency published a draft agreement that urged nations to “accelerate the phase-out” of greenhouse gas emissions.
But outside of the climate talks, there is growing frustration at the disconnect between decision makers and those most affected by climate change. There have been daily protests organized by young activists, who claim that the promises made by countries to meet targets several decades from now are not enough.
“Nobody really wants to incur the cost of preventing climate change today,” said Sayantan Ghosal, professor of economics at the University of Glasgow’s college of business. “They are willing to do it tomorrow, but not today.”
There has also been a gap between, on the one hand, world leaders and corporate executives who have spoken this week about the urgent need for a transition to clean energy, and on the other, the working class that will be most affected by the increased costs associated with that transition.
Many of society’s lowest paid workers, including garbage collectors, are more concerned about rising prices for food, rent and electricity than about rising temperatures. They generally don’t have the flexibility to spend more on more sustainable food and clothing.
As the US economy recovers, after a hiatus during the pandemic, people are leaving their jobs in record numbers, according to data from the US Department of Labor. There are five million fewer people working than before the pandemic began, and employers have struggled to find enough healthcare workers, waiters, truckers and butchers.
This has given employees a new influence and power.
The number of striking workers in the United States rose to more than 25,000 in October, up from an average of about 10,000 in the previous three months, according to data collected by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The shortage has unsettled Britain, which has struggled to find workers to make up for the thousands of European workers who left in the five years since the country voted to leave the European Union.
Mitchell, the union leader, said 20 drivers had left the garbage collection team in recent weeks to go to work as truck drivers in higher-paying jobs.
Peter Welsh, a spokesman for the union, said Scotland needed to invest in workers who will help make the transition to a greener economy.
“I think there are huge challenges that politicians have not even begun to understand,” he said.
Jenny Gross is a general affairs reporter. Before joining the Times, he covered British politics for The Wall Street Journal. @jggross