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'Bearded Broz' wield the broom

Garbage collectors on strike in Birmingham, volunteers hit streets

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 13.08.17
The group of local residents dubbed the “Bearded Broz”

London, Aug. 12: The long suffering people of Birmingham, where rubbish has been piling over the past five weeks because of a strike by bin collectors, would love their city to be as clean as - well, Calcutta.

Birmingham, dubbed "the capital of British Pakistan" in the television comedy Citizen Khan, now has the dubious distinction of being the dirtiest city in the UK, probably in Europe.

As the residents deal with an infestation of rats and maggots, the refuse collectors have warned that their industrial action, taken over a management plan to cut 100 jobs, could last till Christmas.

A group of local Pakistanis, nicknamed the "Bearded Broz", have been trying to clean the streets on their own but their Samaritan act has led the angry strikers to condemn them as "scabs".

The union Unite is conducting an internal vote to renew its industrial action mandate, which could result in more disruption after the current wave of strikes ends on September 21.

"We continue to hold talks with the council, but progress has been slow and we would call on the council to now step up and conclude this urgently," Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said.

"In the absence of a settlement, we will be balloting our members on whether they wish to take strike action and/or industrial action short of a strike after the current industrial action comes to an end in September."

He added: "A renewed industrial action mandate could see this dispute continuing up to Christmas."

Lisa Trickett, a Labour councillor, has issued an open letter to residents apologising on behalf of the Birmingham City Council for the troubles they have been facing because of the strike. But she also cited the positives.

"Despite the huge challenge posed by the industrial action we have made great progress in tackling the backlog of missed collections. Positive moves are being made to settle the dispute and bring the disruption to an end," Trickett wrote.

"We have made an offer to Unite to take the areas we disagree on to ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, so they can be swiftly resolved in an open, fair and transparent way."

The strike has brought back memories of "the winter of discontent" of 1979, when another long-running strike had led to mountains of rubbish building up across the country and the dead lying unburied in mortuaries.

This was one key reason for Prime Minister Jim Callaghan's defeat in the general election that year and the arrival of Margaret Thatcher as Britain's first woman head of government. One of her priorities was to reduce the power of the unions, which she managed to do.

In Birmingham, the neighbourly action by Pakistani volunteers has come under fire from the communist newspaper, Morning Star.

A report in the newspaper earlier this week read: "A dispute... in Birmingham continues after a 'scab army' of volunteers has been cleaning up piles of rubbish. The community group, known as Bearded Broz, are encouraging people to join their scab operation as they undermine the strike by Birmingham City Council refuse workers over job losses."

A Bearded Broz member justified the group's actions: "If Birmingham City Council is watching or listening, then we're doing your job that you're supposed to be doing. We're not here to have a fight with you; we're here to work with you. And if you want to help us, get in touch with us; we'll provide the manpower if you provide the vehicles."

He added: "We're all volunteers, all these guys here, because we want to help our community, and as Muslims we feel it's really important that we do that. We want the world to see what we're doing as well."

Sadiq, a garage owner in Balsall Heath, a Pakistani-dominated part of the city where a tipper truck had become available, commented: "I came up with the initiative.... This is getting out of hand, really, and someone needs to take ownership of this rubbish - and we have decided to do that."

He added: "My attitude is that once this dispute is over, the rats will remain. If you are inviting rats into the area, there will be a shed-load of them.... So the strike may end but rats will remain."

Abdullah Rehman, chief executive of Balsall Heath Forum, a local community organisation, said: "If you could walk these streets now... on the road on the left there's piles of bags. Further down the road there are rubbish bags open with nappies on the street. Apart from anything else it's a health hazard."

The group does have supporters. Claire Dutton tweeted: "The Bearded Broz aren't 'scabs'. They're fed up with stinking rubbish & vermin all over their streets, so are sorting it out."