The proposal to move to a system whereby everyone pays bin charges based on the weight of waste they generate has run into problems – in the face of popular unease about potentially rising bills, charges will now be frozen until July 2017.
While the government claims that most households would see their bills fall under the new system, critics say they could in fact rise substantially.
The price freeze may now, it is claimed, impose losses of €10 million or more on the private waste collection companies concerned. But how, if at all, can such claims be assessed?
As the Irish Independent has pointed out, many of the companies in the sector do not independent.ie/irish-news/news/offshore-ownership-means-waste-firms-profits-stay-secret-31371485.html">publish their accounts. Greyhound, for example, which took over Dublin City Council’s waste services in 2012, registered as an unlimited company in 2010 and moved its ownership offshore – to the Isle of Man.
Panda Waste, also prominent in the Dublin area, did independent.ie/irish-news/news/offshore-ownership-means-waste-firms-profits-stay-secret-31371485.html">likewise in 2013. Their profits (or losses) are thus unknown.
The companies claim that they adopt this approach to minimize the flow of commercially sensitive information to competitors. But as Michael Taft, an economist with the trade union UNITE, points out, a level playing field could equally be established by requiring all operators to publish accounts.
Under Taft’s proposal, “all private companies that bid for franchise contracts would be required to publish their annual financial statements – just like so many other businesses are required to. This would provide commercial accountability.”
Taft also makes the point that the conditions imposed on private companies could be extended beyond disclosure of accounts to cover areas such as pay and working conditions. In 2014, Greyhound workers independent.ie/irish-news/news/greyhound-workers-agree-deal-as-14week-strike-ends-30607411.html">picketed the firm’s Clondalkin depot as part of a fourteen-week industrial action over attempts to cut their wages by up to 35 per cent.
That Greyhound strike began when workers who arrived at Clondalkin were handed new contracts that would have seen drivers’ wages cut by €250 to €270 per week and those of other operatives by €120 to €140. When the workers refused to sign the new contracts, security guards locked them out in a pre-planned operation.
Much of Greyhound’s and other companies’ waste collection may ultimately end up in the controversial Poolbeg incinerator, scheduled to be up and running in late 2017, despite Dublin City Council repeatedly voting against the project.
Residents of Sandymount, Ringsend and Irishtown are especially unhappy at the visual, environmental and (potential) health implications of the incinerator. Earlier this year, Poolbeg construction work was stopped due to an industrial dispute when workers who complained about health and safety concerns and bullying were, allegedly, dismissed.
From the sustainability perspective, the incinerator, in the words of Green Party councilor Claire Byrne, runs contrary to the goal of “creating a society where we waste less and recycle more” rather than “incentivise wasting to feed an incinerator”.
US company Covanta, which is building the incinerator in partnership with Dublin City Council, South Dublin County Council, Fingal County Council and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, is also feeding off the project and using some creative accounting to help it do so.
Colm Keena of the Irish Times reported last year that a company incorporated in Luxembourg in September 2014 proffered a loan of €75 million to a sister company, Irish-based Dublin Waste to Energy (Holdings), at a mouthwatering 13.5 percent per annum interest rate. Dublin Waste to Energy (Holdings), which is owned by Covanta, can offset this debt servicing cost (which goes directly to another arm of the same consortium) against its Irish tax bill.
The bin charges controversy is thus part of a wider mosaic covering issues including: the privatization of public service provision; the erosion of workers’ rights; the overriding of local democracy; and the use of offshore accounting to conceal and maximize corporate profits.
In that respect, it is a perfect prism through which to understand trends in Irish political economy in 2016.