April 14, 2023 –Thousands of Environment Agency workers begin a three day strike on Friday over claims of “endemic low pay”.
The latest action from the Unison trade union will see staff working on flood defences, river pollution and fires walk out.
These emergency response teams say they are too thinly stretched, making it difficult to protect communities and keep the environment safe.
The government said representatives are meeting with the unions to discuss pay.
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The strike will begin at 19:00 BST on Friday and end 07:00 BST Monday morning,
It follows months of industrial action by Environment Agency workers in England who argue a 2% pay offer by the government is not enough to cover the impacts of inflation and equates to a 20% real terms pay cut since 2010.
Unison’s Head of Environment Donna Rowe-Merriman said workers at the agency were resorting to food banks.
“The pay is so low that last week the lowest 2 grades in the Agency had to have an emergency pay uplift just to meet the national living wage [£9.53/hr]”, she said.
The average salary and benefits for an agency worker is £36,508 whilst the lowest four bands, which represent more than 30% of roles, earn less than £30,000.
Unison have said that no government ministers have engaged with them on pay talks.
The government’s environment department – Defra – was unable to confirm if ministers had attended talks but a spokesperson said “representatives are involved”.
Striking workers would only speak to the BBC anonymously. They said their contracts placed limits on speaking to the media and that they feared repercussions.
Workers at the public body are ‘category 1 responders’ meaning they attend emergencies which pose a threat to life in the same way ambulance services or police forces do. They are responsible for attending floods, commercial fires and cleaning up major pollution incidents, such as the Poole Harbour spill which occurred last month.
Since 2001 the Environment Agency has attended 1, 490 major incidents which could post a serious threat to human health.
However, it relies on staff volunteering to be on these 24/7 emergency rotas as well as their normal day jobs.
“People are choosing not to put themselves forward for these shifts, people that are, are just doing it to supplement their income and make ends meet”, said Graham Macro, an installations officer at the Environment Agency and union representative for Prospect union who are also striking next month.
With fewer volunteers the agency is no longer responding to category 3 and 4 incidents.
These strikes will take workers off these shifts, but Mr Macro said that Prospect had coordinated with Unison to make sure that strikes were on different days to ensure safety for communities.