Strikers speak out about ‘toxic bullying culture’ at Cardiff council
Striking refuse collectors in Cardiff have demanded a “properly independent” investigation into their allegation that a culture of toxic bullying exists within the council department they work for.
The workers, members of Unite the union, are taking part in a further phase of strike action due to last until January 25. As well as demanding higher pay, the mainly male workforce wants their concerns about bullying to be addressed.
On the morning of January 5, pickets were outside Cardiff council’s Lamby Way Recycling Centre in the east of the city. Many had points to make about the bullying they say has been endemic to the waste disposal department for years. They spoke to Nation.Cymru on condition that they were not identified by name.
Among the allegations raised were pressure from management to break safety rules in the handling of rubbish, the victimisation of individuals resulting in pay cuts or sacking, physical assault by a manager, the failure to take seriously an incident in which an employee was stabbed with broken glass and an unacceptably confrontational management style.
One of the workers said: “The bullying has been going on a long time – for years. It’s part and parcel of this place.
“Let me give you an example, off the top of my head. There’s quite a few crews here who have been taken off their rounds for working to the council’s own policy and procedures. The management say they’re not going through the work as quick as they should be. At the back of the vehicle is what we call a rave plate, and according to the council’s own policy it should be dropped.
“The reason it should be dropped is that the guys find it easier to put their [rubbish] bags in the back of the vehicle. If it’s up they’ve got to throw the bags over the top, which doesn’t take as long but which expo [The management] are saying the rounds can be done in the allotted time with the rave plates down, when they clearly can’t. So if you’re working to policy and procedure, which we all should be, you’ll get taken off your round for under-performing. If the individual doesn’t work to policy and procedure with the rave plate down, what’s going to happen is that they’re going to get all kinds of physical injuries.
“They’re going to have shoulders, arms, knees, legs and back in pain. If they say this is a work-related injury, the officer will say, if you’d worked with the rave plate down, you mightn’t have had these problems. And if you challenge them, they’ll deny having told you to work the other way.”
Others spoke of having disciplinary action taken against them for trivial reasons, while other individuals, who were preferred by the management, had no action taken against them in similar circumstances. In some cases that resulted in pay cuts amounting to several thousand pounds.
One said: “It happens all the time. If your face doesn’t fit, they’ll use the disciplinary procedure as a tool to sack you. Loads of people have been sacked over the years. We had two supervisors – one had been here 38 years and the other 25 years. They had to reapply for their jobs. Because they were too friendly with us – they used to speak to us like normal people – the council decided to get rid of them. They got stitched up and the council employed younger people.”
Another said: “It’s a them versus us attitude and it’s been like it for donkeys’ years. They’re very aggressive, they will not listen to you, they’ll speak over you, they’ll constantly harass you on a daily basis – and they’ll shout in your face.”
A further worker said: “On the Tuesday before Christmas I was shouted at by one of the middle managers. I even told her to calm down because not even my own wife speaks to me like that. It makes you feel that small, honestly.”
Another worker said: “We’ve raised it with councillors like Huw Thomas [the council’s Labour leader] and they say the management has their full support. To me, that means they don’t mind their staff being bullied by management, which is a strange place for Labour councillors to be. They’re obviously burying their heads in the sand saying there isn’t a bullying culture in Cardiff council and yet it’s right across the board.
“We’ve highlighted it as part of our dispute and that’s one of the reasons we’re taking action now. It goes on right across the council and we need it to stop. The vast majority of workers who are on the sick on his job are not off with physical impairments, but with stress and anxiety caused by the management attitude. Even on the pay issue they say they can’t budge because there’s a national agreement. Yet Wrexham council, where there is no overall control, more money has been found to secure a local pay agreement.”
One worker told how he had been punched in the chest by a supervisor: “I didn’t do anything to warrant that. I asked him why he was singling me out for criticism in front of others. He walked straight over to me, double punched me. It kicked off a little bit and then five minutes later he went away and locked himself in the office.”
Another worker said: “I was attacked, working on the run in Ely, after the Ely riots [following the deaths of two teenagers who had been riding an electric scooter].The day after, we were servicing the area and I was approached by a boy in a taxi. Because we were holding up the road, he started verbally abusing me, saying he was going to stab me if I didn’t move. Next thing I could hear something falling behind me. I turned around and there was a guy walking along. I approached him and he hit me once and said ‘What are you going to do now, I’m in your face’ I said, ‘I’m just doing my job’.
“He then started throwing glass bottles at me and hit me in the head. He smashed a bottle and stabbed me twice. I managed to de-escalate the situation and called the supervisor to notify him about what had happened. Forty minutes later he rang us back and said he thought I was messing about. They offered me no counselling and told me to come back to work on Tuesday, saying I’d be fine. They weren’t taking it seriously at all.”
Cardiff council’s position is that the union’s claims of bullying refer to allegations that were made more than a year ago, and that an independent review found no substance to the claims. However, a spokesperson for Unite the union’s branch said members had no confidence in the previous inquiry because they had not been provided with copies of the inquiry report.
The spokesman said: “It’s important that people can give evidence in confidence and that the inquiry is undertaken by an organisation wholly independent of the council.
Recently that happened at [Welsh language broadcaster] S4C and evidence was uncovered that resulted in the dismissal of the chief executive.
“The council should take our concerns, expressed by large numbers of workers, as seriously as S4C’s board took bullying allegations made by its employees. This toxic culture has gone on long enough and it’s time it was rooted out.”
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