Every day looks like bin day in Birmingham. The trouble is, refuse collections are few and far between.
The city has been in the grip of a strike by bin collectors since June and mountains of rotting rubbish bags litter the streets. Some areas have had one collection in six weeks. The rat population has exploded and maggots writhe where flies have laid their eggs.
Residents say that sporadic collections by agency staff drafted in by Birmingham city council can come at any hour and so households leave bins and bags on the pavements all the time. No one wants to miss one. Rows of wheelie bins and refuse sacks are piled head high and in densely populated quarters the smell of decay catches in the throat.
Soiled nappies are piled outside front doors while people with cars join queues for council tips, now open for longer hours between 7am and 9pm.
Mrs Hussain, 27, who did not want to give her first name, has a daughter aged six and a baby boy of nine months at home. “The smell is really bad. We have lots of nappies,” she said. “I am just putting them out at the front of the house. What else can I do? I don’t have time to go to the tip. I have a baby who needs feeding every few hours and a child at school to drop off and pick up.”
Mrs Hussain, who lives in Acocks Green, in the southwest of the city, has had her bin bags pulled apart by rats. The only way she has found to keep them from her children is to move the waste several metres on to the pavement. She blames the council and Unite, which is leading the strike.
The council wants to restructure the service, saving £5 million a year, while the union says it is fighting for the jobs of 113 refuse collectors. Bin collection in Birmingham was £11.9 million over budget in the last financial year and the council wants to replace the jobs with roles on a lower pay grade.
However, it also faces claims from other lower-graded workers, such as school cooks and cleaners, many female, who have realised they are paid less than the bin collectors.
Talks between the council and the unions began in January but by May Unite had balloted for industrial action and the first walkouts took place from June 30 to August 16. John Clancy, Labour leader of the council, held talks with the union to try to break the deadlock. Unite claimed victory but the city council said no promise had been made on jobs and for two weeks Birmingham held its breath. Then on August 31 the council said it had issued redundancy notices to the refuse workers. Unite announced that the strike was back on and Mr Clancy resigned.
Unite will go to the High Court on Monday to try to block the council from ending the bin workers’ roles and the city has been warned that the strike could last into next year. Collections by agency workers are costing more than £300,000 a week. An agency driver clearing one street said that locals were “getting more and more disgusted with the service”. The driver, a GMB union member, said: “Some streets you go down and the bin bags are just piled head high.”
Rose McNamee, 77, lives on the wrong side of a street split between the city and Solihull council, which is still providing a regular service. The pavement on the Solihull side has become a dumping ground for families affected by the strike. Mrs McNamee’s sympathies, though, lie with the refuse workers. “I don’t blame the bin men coming out on strike,” she said. “They are all people with mortgages and families.”
The city council said it would defend the redundancies and was trying to resolve the dispute quickly.