UNISON calls on water regulator to protect customers and nature

UNISON is calling on the UK water regulator Ofwat and the UK government to stop water companies from increasing bills.

The union says that instead, there should be a focus on legislation to make companies – not the public – pay to restore the waterways to good health and protect jobs in the industry.

The water industry has hit the headlines again this week because of Ofwat’s plans to consult on banning bonuses for the bosses of water companies that have been found to have harmed the environment.

But as well as failing the environment, companies are failing customers and workers as well, claims UNISON, with several companies proposing to increase bills to fund necessary repairs and investment in water infrastructure.

Last year saw water companies consistently hitting headlines for negative reasons, including financial mismanagement, illegal discharge of sewage into waterways and leaving customers without running water – much of which can be put down to a lack of investment in infrastructure.

Yet according to analysis by the Labour Party, water company bosses have received over £25m in bonuses and incentives since the last general election. The analysis found that nine water chief executives were paid £10m in bonuses, £14m in incentives and £603,580 in benefits since 2019.

In addition, in 2023, senior executives from five of the 11 water companies that deal with sewage took bonuses. During this time, the water industry saw below-inflation pay settlements, recruitment freezes, job losses and customers facing the prospect of an increase in water bills just as households are struggling from the cost-of-living scandal.

UNISON national secretary Donna Rowe-Merriman said: “It’s obvious that the water companies in England are regional monopolies – and this model is not working for consumers or the environment.

“For years, profits in the water industry have landed in shareholder and executive pockets, and now, when infrastructure investment can’t be ignored any longer, they want customers and workers to pay the price.

“Privatising the profits and nationalising the cost is not a sustainable way to run any industry. Public ownership of the water industry is desperately needed so that the profits of this national asset benefit UK citizens and not just a small group of shareholders.”

The article UNISON calls on water regulator to protect customers and nature first appeared on the UNISON National site.

UNISON calls on water regulator to protect customers and nature

UNISON is calling on the UK water regulator Ofwat and the UK government to stop water companies from increasing bills.

The union says that instead, there should be a focus on legislation to make companies – not the public – pay to restore the waterways to good health and protect jobs in the industry.

The water industry has hit the headlines again this week because of Ofwat’s plans to consult on banning bonuses for the bosses of water companies that have been found to have harmed the environment.

But as well as failing the environment, companies are failing customers and workers as well, claims UNISON, with several companies proposing to increase bills to fund necessary repairs and investment in water infrastructure.

Last year saw water companies consistently hitting headlines for negative reasons, including financial mismanagement, illegal discharge of sewage into waterways and leaving customers without running water – much of which can be put down to a lack of investment in infrastructure.

Yet according to analysis by the Labour Party, water company bosses have received over £25m in bonuses and incentives since the last general election. The analysis found that nine water chief executives were paid £10m in bonuses, £14m in incentives and £603,580 in benefits since 2019.

In addition, in 2023, senior executives from five of the 11 water companies that deal with sewage took bonuses. During this time, the water industry saw below-inflation pay settlements, recruitment freezes, job losses and customers facing the prospect of an increase in water bills just as households are struggling from the cost-of-living scandal.

UNISON national secretary Donna Rowe-Merriman said: “It’s obvious that the water companies in England are regional monopolies – and this model is not working for consumers or the environment.

“For years, profits in the water industry have landed in shareholder and executive pockets, and now, when infrastructure investment can’t be ignored any longer, they want customers and workers to pay the price.

“Privatising the profits and nationalising the cost is not a sustainable way to run any industry. Public ownership of the water industry is desperately needed so that the profits of this national asset benefit UK citizens and not just a small group of shareholders.”

The article UNISON calls on water regulator to protect customers and nature first appeared on the UNISON National site.

Environment Agency workers announce industrial action dates

UNISON members who protect communities during severe weather conditions will be taking part in industrial action from 12 December.

Members in the Environment Agency (EA) will take continuous action, short of strike, from that date.

The action will take the form of work to rule and includes:

  • only working contracted hours;
  • taking all scheduled breaks and having appropriate compensatory rest between work;
  • not doing any unpaid work outside contracted hours; and
  • disconnecting from work electronics outside contracted hours and during rest breaks.

UNISON is also asking members to consider withdrawing from incident rosters on the 12, 14, 16, 20 and 22 of December.

Vacancy levels across the agency are so high that services rely on the goodwill of staff to deliver vital services to protect communities and the environment from floods and pollution incidents.

UNISON national secretary for the environment Donna Rowe-Merriman said: “Staff across the environment agency have seen wages fall by over 20% as a result of over 12 years of pay austerity. The cost of living crisis is affecting the ability of staff to pay household bills and put food on the table.

“Workers have said loud and clear that enough is enough. The EA is underfunded and its staff are undervalued and underpaid. The failure to properly reward staff is leading to unprecedented vacancies – as staff vote with their feet in search of better paid jobs.

Ms Rowe-Merriman continued: “This failure to address the root cause of low pay forces the agency to pay external contractors even higher rates to fill the gaps or turn to remaining workers working overtime to provide vital services. Staff are often compelled to carry out overtime just to pay their household bills due to low pay in the EA affecting their family life”.

She concluded: “The government needs to ensure that public monies deliver decent pay for public sector workers – not inflated profits for contractors and dividends for shareholders”.

The article Environment Agency workers announce industrial action dates first appeared on the UNISON National site.

Working a day every week for free at the Environment Agency

“We’re not going to get jam tomorrow. We might get a piece of stale bread, but we won’t have any jam to spread on it, that’s for sure.”

You could be forgiven for thinking, given all the headlines about dead fish off Britain’s east coast, sewage in the country’s rivers and seas and increased flooding due to climate change, that the role of the Environment Agency in England would be considered vital.

Unfortunately, the Conservative government seems to think otherwise. Recent policy announcements and the bill to scrap absolutely any regulation that has felt the breath of the EU on it reveal an administration that is happy to rip up a raft of environmental protections in the chase for ‘growth’ and some sort of ‘Brexit Brucie Bonus’.

So it’s not difficult to imagine how Environment Agency staff might be treated in such a context.

Working one day in five for nothing

Jackie Hamer, the chair of the UNISON Environment Agency sector committee, has worked for the agency and its predecessor organisations for almost 37 years, going back to the days of the old water authorities, before water privatisation.

“I originally started working in fisheries research,” she explains, “but for the last 15 years, I have been a senior environment officer, specialising in agriculture. I support people in my team – part of a specialist agriculture team – giving them technical advice and technical leadership.”

Farming is subject to a range of different regulations, so Jackie’s team advises farmers in the North East, helping them to be compliant with the rules and, if they aren’t, potentially taking enforcement action.

But why is she voting to take strike action – and recommending that other members do so too?

“Because I’ve been around a long time, I’ve got a very long corporate memory,” she says. “And a long memory about previous pay awards and, since 2011, maybe, we’ve never had a pay rise that matched inflation.

“Once, it almost matched inflation – and that was it. In a number of years, we had a pay freeze. So the result is that our salaries in the Environment Agency have lost 20% of their value in real terms if you look at inflation over the same period.”

Or put another way: “We’re now working one day in every five for nothing.”

There’s the wider context too. “At same time, this government seems to want to hand cash to people who are already the wealthiest in society,” notes Jackie.

“I just think it’s completely unfair. It’s always ordinary working people who bear the brunt. Every time there has to be savings made and cuts and all the rest of it, it’s always the public sector, it’s always public services.

“And the losers are the people who work in public services – myself and my colleagues – but also the general public, who are supposed to be beneficiaries of these service.”

Flood water in fields, UK countryside, 2021. Climate change, extreme weather, global warming. Global floods risk under climate change. Flooded wooden filed gate

Flooding in the UK has increased in recent years as climate change worsens

 

She points out that the public pay taxes and have a right to expect those services, but the government has, over the last 12 years, made deeper and deeper cuts. Jackie says that a lack of funding at the Environment Agency means it’s carrying a record number of vacancies and “that puts an awful lot of pressure on the people who are left, desperately trying to cover all the gaps.

“We are seeing more people completely leave the agency than we ever have in the past, in terms of percentage turnover. It’s just the perfect storm, and I don’t see any signs that this is going to improve, to any degree, next year.”

She notes that, on the basis of what “the latest chancellor”, Jeremy Hunt, has intimated, “there’s going to be a load of cuts coming down the line and that will mean all these promises of jam tomorrow, in terms of pay.”

Existing – not living

Jackie continues: “It’s not just about my personal position – it’s also about others who work for the Environment Agency, who are paid a lot less than me. People who are on less than £19,000 a year. Only just above the minimum wage or living wage.

“And they’re finding it really hard. They’re having to do significant overtime just to keep their heads above water.

“They’re not living – they’re existing, in some cases. And it’s desperately unfair. They do some vital jobs, yet they are so badly rewarded for what they do.

“Everyone loses – there are no winners here.”

Jackie mentions fellow UNISON activist Andy Theaker, who works in field operations in the Thames area.

Field operatives maintain flood defences, repair them and, when there’s a flood warning, operate those flood defences.

“It means keeping things like trash screens clear,” observes Jackie. “In the autumn and winter, when there’s a lot of dead leaves around … that’s a 24-hour job to prevent the water backing up and flooding.

“It’s operating flood gates, it’s putting up temporary flood defences in some cases. These people do really, really vital roles.”

Man from environmental agency report on flood situation. York, North Yorkshire, UK.

An Environment Agency officer reporting on flooding in York, North Yorkshire.

 

Later, Andy himself explains that there are essentially two types of worker in the EA: “staff”, of whom there are around 9,000, and “manual”, of whom there are roughly 1,000.

Andy is in the latter group. Their primary role is incident response, with their main focus on operating and maintaining flood defences, although they can be called to pollution incidents too.

Skilled and important work – but low paid.

“Pay was never that good, but it was enough,” comments Andy.

“But after 10 years of pay ‘restraint’ … I think that’s the word … we’ve fallen behind.

“And with the cost of living now, people can’t afford to work for the agency”. Like Jackie, he sees staff “leaving in their droves”.

As an example, he talks of a colleague – ex-colleague – whose wife was made redundant. They had two young children and he could no longer afford to drive to work. So he got a new job as a delivery driver – with better hours and £6k a year more in the bank.

Andy and his wife are feeling the pinch too, though with no children at home any more, they’re looking to downsize, while pulling back on household expenditure.

“I’m better off than many others – one of the lucky ones,” he says, “but it’s still very difficult”.

‘I can’t imagine working anywhere else’

Amanda Cruddas is another UNISON activist, working as an environment officer in Cumbria and Lancashire – a job she’s done for 27 years.

“I’m institutionalised really!” She jokes, “but I can’t imagine working anywhere else. Like any job, there’s good bits and bad bits, but I do enjoy it. It’s sort of an identity.

“I investigate pollution, but we don’t go out that often.”

Why not?

Officers cannot simply make up their minds to attend a pollution incident – and certainly not if it’s what is known as a category three one. But as Amanda points out: “When it’s not serious – when there aren’t any dead fish – it’s still not good. Category three incidents, as they’re classed, it’s still sewerage or slurry or something … septic tanks in a stream … it’s still not how it should be.

“And we know that, when left, those things just get worse and it’s slow degradation … It accumulates; lowers the quality of the rivers and everything around it.”

From the point of view of herself and her colleagues, she says that they’d certainly like to go to the less serious incidents.

“But we’ve got to have justification … very strong justification, which is usually somebody kicking off – somebody ‘bigger’.”

Water contaminated with sewage and waste in a reservoir

Water contaminated with sewage and waste in a reservoir

 

So why is she recommending that members at the agency vote to strike?

“Because they [the employer] think they can get away with it, I suppose. Because we haven’t had a proper pay rise for 12 years.

“We’re supposed to feel that 2% is lots. And to be honest, when you’ve had 0% or 1%, you think: ‘Ooo, 2%, yeah! Well, that’s quite good!’

“And then you realise that – it’s not.”

She too mentions how staff are, in effect, working a day a week for free.

But she’s also keen to press the point that members should vote for strike action as well as action short of a strike, which she thinks can be more useful in raising awareness of just how much the work they do is missed.

She refers to a previous occasion when, rather than striking, members withdrew from the incident response system. That was reported to the government’s emergency situation committee, commonly known as COBRA.

“People might say ‘who’ll notice if we’re not working?’ and I think they notice more when we do action short of strike, actually,” says Amanda. “Although flooding isn’t my primary role, something like two thirds of those who respond to flooding events don’t work in flood defence. It needs the rest of us to manage everything around it.

“I’m, personally, either a logistics officer or somebody who goes to the multi-agency meetings when there’s a flooding event. All stuff that needs doing.”

It’s easy to understand why this kind of tactic can work as well as conventional strikes.

Getting in the news

Amanda clarifies: “I am prepared to strike and I’d urge other members to vote ‘yes’ to both strike and action short of a strike, so that then we have the choice”.

She also thinks it helps that strike action is getting in the news more and that the public is very supportive, as the cost of living crisis and underfunded services affect everyone.

And she is also delighted that UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea is getting substantial news coverage, raising the profile of the union and its members, describing it as “fabulous”. “I think that we need to have our voice and say, yes … us as well”.

Any final thoughts? She muses for a moment. “It’s time for us to say: ‘No, we’ve had enough really’.”

The ballot of UNISON members working for the Environment Agency is open. The ballot closes on 10 November.

Find out more

The article Working a day every week for free at the Environment Agency first appeared on the UNISON National site.

Environment Agency condemned over pay imposition

UNISON has today condemned the decision of the Environment Agency (EA) to implement a 2% + £345 pay offer for staff while, at the same time, imposing worse terms in contracts for new workers joining the agency.

UNISON national secretary Donna Rowe-Merriman stated: “When this pay offer by the EA is implemented, workers will clearly see just how ineffective the award is at tackling the increasing cost of living.

“UNISON members are in serious need of an improved pay outcome. We are told that the decision on any improved offer lies with the government, and we urge them to intervene.

“Most EA workers have not had a salary increase since July 2020 – and no increase that matched inflation for over a decade. This woefully inadequate offer this year will not prevent even more workers being plunged into ‘in-work’ poverty and relying on foodbanks.”

The agency has also announced significant changes to contracts for new employees. These will introduce a mandatory requirement to take part in incident response rotas – in effect, hiring new staff on inferior terms and conditions. This is currently a voluntary requirement for existing staff.

This imposition will mean that the agency is seeking to recruit new staff to fill the staffing crisis – but on significantly different terms and conditions to existing staff.

UNISON has campaigned against these changes to new contracts, arguing that proper recompense for carrying out these front-line duties in emergency situations will ensure sufficient people volunteer to participate.

Mrs Rowe-Merriman said: “Far from being viewed as an ‘attraction’ for new staff joining the agency, these changes – coupled with the declining value of EA wages, year on year, will fail to deal with the tsunami of staff leaving to seek better paid employment elsewhere”.

The article Environment Agency condemned over pay imposition first appeared on the UNISON National site.