Trashing the concept of a public service

‘Customers’ are being asked to collude in the impoverishment of the men who collect their bins


Rubbish, trash, garbage – this column has them all. But also some bigger things: the stripping away of citizenship and the brutalisation of everyday life.

Until January 16th, 2012, the part rubbish played in my life was largely confined to the comments under the online versions of my columns.

I put out my black, green and brown bins on the ordained days. Men arrived in a Dublin City Council truck and emptied them. I said hello to them as I was heading out for my morning constitutional and dragged in the empty bins on my return. In late December, one of the men would ring on the doorbell with a polite inquiry about something or other, a signal that it was time for the “Christmas box”. I handed over a note and we exchanged pleasantries and I waved to the rest of the crew and said thanks for the service.

This was all quite banal but also quite civilised. It was part of the warp and weft of the fabric of mundane decency. I paid my taxes, and a €100 service charge, and got something back. I knew the binmen were in a union and that they were public employees so I took it for granted that they were paid a living wage.

It wasn’t a sentimental drama – the waft was a bit too heady for hugging. But it wasn’t savage either. The hum was the honest stench of trash, not the reek of moral rottenness. A small but significant part of humdrum urban existence was carried off with a modicum of dignity all round.

No one ever asked me or anyone else I know whether, as a citizen or a taxpayer, I wanted to change this arrangement. It worked fine. But it was intolerable because no one was making a profit out of it. It was ideologically unsound. It was decided from on high that this simply wouldn’t do in the 21st century, that it was not properly market-driven, that it needed a good dose of “choice” and “competition”.

So, after no consultation of any kind, I got a letter on headed notepaper – jointly headed, that is, with the logos of Dublin City Council and of a commercial company called Greyhound. It addressed me, not as a citizen or a taxpayer or even as a resident of my own city, but as “Dear customer”. It informed me, as a fait accompli, that as of January 16th, 2012 there would be a “seamless transfer” of my bin collections to Greyhound and that I would be paying this company for the service in the future.

The “customer” bit is itself a heap of linguistic trash. A service that was perfectly okay is now much more expensive and significantly worse. Instead of the €100 service charge, it now costs me €282. Have my taxes come down by the amount saved by the council ceasing to collect my bins? No, they’ve gone up – a lot. But at least I’m the customer now and the customer is all-powerful.

Garbage, of course. There have been weeks on end when the bins haven’t been collected. The requirement for the binmen to empty a bin every 20 seconds means the process has become much sloppier.

Curfew flouted

The 9pm curfew – after which it is supposedly illegal for my bins to be out on the footpath – has been flouted. I complained to Dublin City Council about this. Their reply: “I have contacted Greyhound again regarding your complaint. As they are a private company we do not have a role to play in improving their service.”

And now something much worse is happening. I am being asked to collude as a “customer” in the impoverishment of the men who collect my bins and their families. The destruction of a public service that maintained some level of decency has led to a no-holds-barred “competition”, in which rival waste companies compete for business.

Since bin-collection is bin-collection, the only basis on which they can compete is price. And since most of the costs are fixed, the only way to drive the price down is by driving up productivity, skimping on health and safety training and ruthlessly slashing wages. Hence, Greyhound issued an ultimatum to its workers to accept a savage pay cut from about €450 a week to €335.

This brutality affects those workers, of course, but it also affects the rest of us. We will end up subsidising Greyhound by paying family income supplement to some of those workers. But we’re also being forced to take part in the disgusting exploitation of fellow citizens. As a “customer”, I’m now being told that my market “choice” comes down to this: play my part in pushing workers and their families into poverty or bury my rubbish in the back garden.

A system for taking away waste now pipes the toxic sludge of economic abuse back into our households. In order to have my trash collected, I have to sort it properly: leave citizenship in the black bin, decency in the brown bin and morality out of it altogether.

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