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Replacing staff with volunteers increases flood risk to homes says BW staff union
British Waterways is to shed 100 of its 1,700 staff as it moves to become a ‘Big Society’ charity and an increased danger of flooding comes from its plans to recruit more volunteers to replace professional and skilled workers well-versed in maintaining the canals and reservoirs say Unite, the BW staff union.
Julia Long, Unite's National Officer for Docks and Waterways, says that staff are seriously concerned about suggestions that the long-term unemployed will be forced into replacing current staff on just £1 an hour under the coalition’s 'Workfare UK' project.
She said, "Some British Waterways regional managers have already started advertising for volunteers to fill roles previously performed by employees, despite agreements that this would not happen.
"The real impact of bringing in an unskilled workforce is an increased risk of flooding to people’s homes and businesses. The reduction in spending has already meant the network operating a so-called ‘managed retreat’, prioritising work on the basis of urgency."
"The management already have mobile teams racing round the network patching up breaches and it’s frequently the case that by the time the teams hear about a breach and get there, it is too late.
"A total of 2,200 miles of canals and over 70 reservoirs are maintained by these skilled professionals. And it is likely that the New Waterways charity, which will take over from British Waterways in 2013, will be looking after the waterways currently maintained by the Environment Agency - with no additional resources."
The union says that British Waterways aims to freeze the pay of its staff and reduce the funding for essential maintenance to ‘recover’ some of the £10 million ‘lost’ by the funding axe wielded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The management is hoping that this pay freeze will save up to £3m – which Unite say nearly equates to the £3.5 million paid to the nine company executives in 2009/10.
Julia Long concuded, "This sits very uneasily with the cuts to the staff, which we believe will lead to the deterioration of the canals and reservoirs, and to what that means in terms of the increased risk of flooding to homes and businesses.
"British Waterways should not be abolished and turned into a charity, employing volunteers on ‘no’ or minimum wages. It should employ professional and well-paid staff to maintain Britain’s waterways. Our canals are one of this country’s great heritages and should be preserved for future generations – for the many and not just a few well-paid ‘fat cat’ directors.