Who's going to do the dirty jobs?


When Government announced its proposed new immigration laws for EU workers on the 19th of February 2020, it was met with a fair amount of disgruntlement from various industry sectors. While ideologically it may seem like a good idea to have more checks in place, require prospective immigrants to pass a language test and earn above a certain wage, practically it offers little benefit to Britain’s waste management sector.


Currently, the UK recycling and waste sectors employ approximately 100 000 migrant EU workers, many of whom are unskilled. Under the new requirements, most of them would not qualify for a visa. It seems the Government has overlooked the importance of these workers in industry sectors. They may be considered lower skilled, but they are no less important. They fulfill vital roles that enable industry to function. Without the availability of the migrant EU workforce, businesses may struggle to find the manpower to run their operations effectively.


The waste and recycling industries rely heavily on drivers, machinery operators, site workers etc. and many employed in these roles are EU migrant workers. Because of health and safety standards many of them do speak English and would probably be able to pass the language test. However, the salaries they earn are well below the threshold and would therefore disqualify them.


The Government’s response to these concerns is to hire locally or automate, thereby reducing workforce requirements. But clearly this hasn’t been thought through. The UK currently has an unemployment rate of only 3,8%. It’s one of the reasons that there are so many migrant EU workers in the UK, because there are many more opportunities than workers available. Migrant workers often won’t mind doing menial or what others may consider ‘dirty’ jobs for what they consider a decent wage. What are the chances of local Britons looking for employment having the same approach to the waste management industry?


In terms of automation, this is certainly a possibility for the industry. Many areas of the recycling industry, such as sorting, are already highly automated. However, the main drawback of automation is that it requires a large investment and takes time to implement. Designing systems still requires a workforce as does operations and maintenance. So automation may reduce the reliance on a workforce but doesn’t eliminate it altogether.


Other aspects of recycling and waste management, such as curbside collections would be extremely difficult to fully automate – short of getting drones to lift bins and dispose of the waste in refuse collection trucks. It is jobs like these that will be most impacted by the new immigration bill because salaries for jobs like these are well below the immigration threshold set at £26500. So who will be left to do the dirty work?


With this in mind, what are the options for waste management companies? How can they close the workforce gap after the new immigration law comes into effect in January 2021? Some are suggesting that the waste and recycling sectors need to be included in the skills shortage list which would enable migrant EU workers to qualify. Others are insisting that the only workable solution is for the minimum salary requirement be reduced so that workers in the waste and recycling industries qualify. Individually companies have little say in this but collectively industry bodies may be able to lobby for changes to the bill before it is passed.


Unfortunately both of these solutions require Government to actually listen and make amendments to the current bill, and this is not something I have a great deal of confidence in. This means that the industry is going to have to get creative and find alternate solutions. Do you see the possibility of other workable solutions? Are there other places the industry could source the required workforce and how can this be achieved. Or do we need embrace technology and automate as much of the operational processes as possible?