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Award-Winning Environmental Lawyer Rachel Pickles on the Importance of Strike Action for Environment Agency (EA) Workers

From nurses to rail workers, the United Kingdom has recently bore witness to a plethora of strikes.

Whether it’s in a bid for fairer pay or better worker rights, we have seen plenty of planned strikes go ahead without governmental intervention. While the country’s leaders have remained nigh silent on the timely issues facing these esteemed professionals and frontline workers, union members continue to share their experiences with the public.

The latest report is that Environment Agency (EA) workers have now voted in a landslide decision to support yet more industrial action. The DEFRA will now be joining other civil servants from varying government departments in completing strike action next month. As an onlooker, it may be hard to fully comprehend the ramifications of this colossal decision. In the following article, award-winning environmental lawyer and sustainability expert, Rachel Pickles, shares her insights and expertise on the impact of this political move

Why are Environment Agency (EA) workers striking?

Strike action has and always will be a last resort. However, since the government has failed to intervene time and time again, countless unions are left with no choice but to stand up and take action. We are living in a period of firsts — call it history in the marking.

For the first time ever, members of Unison voted in favour of strike action. At that time, 92% of Environment Agency (EA) workers voted for action short of strike action, while 73% of workers voted in favour of strike action. Since then, we have seen another remarkable move from EA workers, who have yet again made a bold, political decision.

The latest news is that 67% of EA workers who were able to vote as part of the Prospect union ballot were in favour of strike action. As if that weren’t enough to make a statement, 92% of members voted in favour of action short of a strike. For that reason, the ballot surpassed the 50% participation threshold, which means that strike action will go ahead. If you are unclear on the terms, the unions that represent EA workers are Unite and GMB.

Now that you have the statistics, you might be concerned with what this strike action means in real terms. The vote comes as a backlash to a forced pay deal for staff that has been rejected by union members. The Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan recently released a message to staff saying that the company had “decided that we pay you this year’s pay deal next month so that you all have it well before Christmas.”

The new payment was prepped to come in staff members’ November wages and would also be backdated to July 2022, leading to an increase in salary right before the break. However, upon reviewing the so-called raises, union members labelled them as “unjust” and cited the fact that EA workers have seen a decade of “real-term pay cuts” of late. For that reason, a ballot was called to determine whether there would be industrial action.

“Our members work in the Environment Agency because they are passionate about their work but there comes a point where passion is not enough for you to carry on in the face of tough times – that point has been reached,” stated Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect union. “The Environment Agency is already struggling to fulfil its regulatory duties due to resourcing issues and experienced staff leaving. The bottom line is if you have a higher proportion of less experienced staff then either the quantity of what you do suffers, or the quality. Eventually, it’s both which is why you see pollution incidents on the rise, fewer events being investigated, fewer prosecutions and fewer penalties handed out.”

This comes amid a cost of living crisis in the United Kingdom and inflation reaching record highs. In order to continue with their duties, Environment Agency (EA) workers deserve to be properly paid for their work. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka labelled the current salary terms offered by the company as “poverty pay” saying that having to choose between food and central heating is “not acceptable for the government’s own workforce.”

Conclusion

Striking has always played a vital role in forcing social change. The Environment Agency (EA) are at the forefront of sustainable development and the preservation of resources here in the UK. Overlooking and underpaying the work that these professionals carry out is a gigantic mistake. Without governmental intervention, the proposed strikes will go ahead as planned. However, it’s important to recognise that, whatever the outcome of this action, it is commendable that the workers are taking a solid and united stand against poor pay. The choice to strike is not one that any worker takes lightly and it is a courageous act.

About Rachel Pickles

Rachel Pickles is an award-winning environmental lawyer and sustainability advocate. She holds a Masters of Law (LLM) with honours from the University of Bristol Law School in 2016 and a law degree from the University of Edinburgh.

She’s worked in private practice since 2019, dealing with high-profile litigation cases with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and regulatory bodies including the Environment Agency. Her career has focussed on environmental issues including conservation, pollution, and wildlife protection. As such, she has written highly-respected legal papers on the topics which have gained traction among her peers.

Backed by her foundation of knowledge in Corporate Social Responsibility, she has expertly advised business leaders and CEOs on how to become more sustainable. She is an outspoken advocate on the prevention of climate change, deforestation, and Ozone layer depletion. She also subscribed to a range of organisations including the Legal Sustainability Alliance, Lawyers for NetZero, and the Law Firm Sustainability Network.

Rachel is working on her first book, entitled “Net Zero to One Hundred: Advice on How FTSE 100 Companies Can (and Should) Be Saving the Planet.” She currently lives in Walthamstow, London with her long-time partner, three children, and a Cocker-spaniel.

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