Uncompetitive wage rates will put us out of business, says Greyhound boss

Michael Buckley claims his company is suffering from ‘race to the bottom’ in the waste industry

Micheal Buckley of Greyhound: “I know the pay cuts we are looking for are big, but if [the workers] win, and get what they want, then we are out of business.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Micheal Buckley of Greyhound: “I know the pay cuts we are looking for are big, but if [the workers] win, and get what they want, then we are out of business.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 01:20

Even while Michael Buckley is painting a picture of a tough, competitive business in which his company’s cost base is, he says, not sustainable, he somehow manages to convey enthusiasm for what it is he does.

In the middle of a high-profile dispute with some of his workforce, and despite some harsh commentary and reporting recently in this and other media outlets, he still wants to make the point that he believes the private sector is doing a good job with domestic waste collection.

He says he shares Siptu president Jack O’Connor’s concerns about the “race to the bottom” in the waste industry but that he, Buckley, cannot organise a level playing field across the sector, and that as matters stand, his company Greyhound is paying well above the industry average to some of its workers. He also says that establishing a base level wage rate could lead to higher prices for householders.

What annoys him is the fact that his company is being attacked when, at the same time, Siptu, he alleges, has agreed pay rates with competitor companies that are below what Greyhound is offering workers operating out of its base in Clondalkin, Dublin. “I know the pay cuts we are looking for are big, but if [the workers] win, and get what they want, then we are out of business.”

Greyhound is looking to impose pay cuts of approximately 35 per cent on approximately 85 drivers and operatives working out of the Clondalkin plant, a proposal that the workers have refused to accept, and which has led to their being replaced, for the time being anyhow, by agency and contract workers.

Buckley says he has sympathy for workers who have mortgages and bills to pay being asked to take such a pay cut, but says the alternative is the company going out of business and the workers earning nothing.

The dispute at Clondalkin is the latest episode of a longer narrative and one in which, he says, the union may have lost control of its members. He wants the union to agree to go back to the Labour Court for a binding determination, the next stage in the process set out in the company’s agreement with the union. Siptu wants to go back to the court for more talks but “we have been talking for two years”.

He and his brother Brian have photographs of themselves as children standing alongside skips belonging to their parents, Brendan and Maura, who ran a waste business. His late father was a hard worker and his mother was good with accounts, and together they ran a “hump and dump” business.

It was a different business in those days, with rubbish being picked up for dumping in unlicensed landfill sites around the city. “People would be shocked now to learn how many housing estates are built on top of old landfill sites.”

Michael went to UCD to study commerce, and afterwards to KPMG to train as an accountant, while Brian studied economics before going to work with a bank in Australia. While there, Brian did some work on the acquisition of APN by Independent News & Media, and through this route came to learn about paper recycling and the price of newsprint. There was next to no recycling in Ireland at the time. “We saw an opening.”

They set up their Greyhound company and began offering to pay retail multiples for waste material that up to then the businesses had been paying others to get rid of. As the recycling business got up and running, they also began collecting more general waste.

Then there was the landfill crisis in Dublin, with the amount of waste seeking a home shooting forever skywards, and the price being charged for access to landfill keeping pace. “We decided that if we were going to stay in business, we needed to be non-landfill.” They began exporting waste. That was 15 years ago. Now more than 90 per cent of Dublin’s waste is exported.

For those who don’t know, the domestic waste put in green bins is separated into paper, plastic and metal, and exported, while the material put in brown bins is turned into compost in Ireland. (Buckley says they are looking at ways to convert it into a power source.)

For the general waste that goes in black bins, there is not longer nearly enough landfill, and the plan to build an incinerator plant in Poolbeg, Dublin, remains just that, a (very expensive) plan. So the waste is turned into bales, and exported to be burned in power-generating plants. Greyhound sends a chartered ship of the stuff abroad every week (3,500 to 4,000 tonnes).

Greyhound was concentrating on the commercial rather than the domestic waste market until the recession came and turned what was a busy, lucrative sector into a distressed, overcrowded one. A lot of players have hit the wall, and some have been restructured. Yet the level of consolidation that might have been expected has not as yet occurred.