Private Businesses in Europe Understand the Cost of Labor, But Public Agencies Don't Seem To

Most folks know that labor costs in Europe are high, both because of high minimum wages, high required benefits, and various government regulations that raise the cost of labor (e.g. making it impossible to fire anyone).

My observation so far is that private businesses understand this perfectly.  Given higher labor costs than in the US, most service businesses have fewer employees.  In restaurants in the US a waiter might cover 4-6 tables -- in most European restaurants I have been in the waiter covers the whole restaurant.  In fact, two of the places we have eaten are 12 table restaurants run entirely by a couple, with one being the totality of the waitstaff and the other being the totality of the kitchen staff.  In this case, the married owners of a small business might be hiring nobody.

But for reasons I don't know but I can guess, public agencies -- which presumably have higher labor costs than in the US -- are simply profligate with labor.  The example I will cite is trash pickup, both in Amsterdam and Bruges.  In these two lovely cities, every business and residence throws their trash on the curb in bags and boxes and even loose in piles.  Here is a portion of the 9 streets district in Amsterdam, an important upscale shopping area that lives and dies by attracting tourists.  Look how ugly the streets are:

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In Phoenix we all put our trash into standard cans which are a heck of a lot more attractive than basically just throwing garbage on the street.  These cans are then emptied by a truck with just one employee, a driver that has an arm that reaches out and grabs each can and dumps it in the truck.

In Amterdam, trash is picked up far slower and requires three people, a driver and two guys running around like crazy picking up trash and throwing it in the back.  The compactor on this truck was terrible and slow and so the truck compactor could not keep up with the workers, who had to bend down and pick up the same trash two or three times to get it to stay in the truck.


It looked like a total custerf*ck


  1. herdgadfly:

    From Victor Davis Hanson:
    I lived in Greece for more than two years, and one of my best memories is of a small hotelier at a seaside resort. He checked you in; he cooked; he did the landscaping at night; he did all the maintenance during the day. I asked him why he didn’t hire more help, since his hotel wasn’t all that small and he seemed to be going 24/7. What followed was a harangue about the cost of hiring a permanent worker in Greece, the difficulty of ever firing him if he proved worthless, and why he preferred to do everything himself rather than fill out all sorts of forms and hire unmotivated but tenured employees. Besides, he said, almost everyone was on some sort of pension, disability, or government benefit, and was unwilling to work, so his choices were either illegal immigrants or broke foreign students. Then he launched into a blast against socialism, and explained how he was forced to become an expert tax dodger, how he would barter for all the transactions he could, and why he hated the government. He finished by sighing that in Greece, the people spend their time either devising ways to get government money or scheming to avoid the tax collectors — or, preferably, both.

  2. obloodyhell:

    A total clusterf**k?
    A government operation?

    I should say NOT!!

    I would say, in the same vein, that President Obama has done a SPECTACULAR job as our PotUS.

    Yes... Sarcasm!!!

  3. NL7:

    Where I currently live in Philly, trash goes out on the sidewalk one day a week. You set it out with recycling between 7pm and 7am and then it gets picked up. Each area of the city has a different day.

    In some of the nicest places to live and shop and eat, where sidewalk space and alley space is scarce, there aren't many dumpsters to speak of. Those that exist are typically locked. So people in 7-figure brownstones walk around heaps of trash once a week.

    What's worse is that often the trash blows around, so a lot of it doesn't get efficiently picked up. Your pictures of European trash are quite neat and orderly compared to some of what I see in Philly - even in the best neighborhoods, much of the trash is poorly secured.

    And the pickup is often delayed by holidays or deferred by weather. If it snows out on your pickup day, then you need to hold your trash until your day next week - two weeks of trash piling up in winter, in expensive homes. If you have a high-rise, they have dumpsters. But if you have a million-dollar brownstone, there often is no dumpster.

    Craziest system. I'm new to it. I've lived or worked in the downtown of at least half a dozen cities across the US. I never noticed a system like this, where the trash just sits out. Maybe they had it in some neighborhoods of DC or Chicago or SF and I missed it because I always had dumpsters or trash cans. But I really am surprised at it. Especially in a city where I know we have rodent issues.

  4. Earl Wertheimer:

    Can it be worse? Certainly!

    Sitting outside at a local cafe on a Sunday AM. On the sidewalk a few yards away is a city garbage can that looks like:

    Hanging from the slats and surrounding the can, were other bags of garbage.

    Along comes a city garbage truck (on Sunday, which means they get paid time and a half or more...). They reach into the middle of the fixture, extract the metal can within and dump the contents into their truck.

    They replace the metal liner and drive off, leaving all the hanging and surrounding garbage.

    That's how garbage collection is done by city employees in Montreal, Quebec.

  5. Addie:

    NYC is more like Amsterdam.

  6. Arrian:

    Isn't that one of the standard prescriptions of progressive economics: Raise the wages of private employees, and then the government hires people who would otherwise be out of work to provide jobs for people priced out of the private market? Wasn't that what made FDR so beloved?

  7. David in Michigan:

    Trash collection in Phoenix..... what nonsense. The have the same system in California. It's intent is to limit the amount of trash that can be discarded by REQUIRING a standardized container and has NOTHING to do with aesthetics.

    It's just as "ugly" as putting the trash out in plastic bags as shown in your pictures. And your assertion that it results in faster pick up is definitely open to question as the truck driver must guide the pick up arm just so in order to make the pick up..... usually twice as 2 "cans" are allowed. Citizens are stuck paying someone to pick up larger and odd shaped items.


  8. marque2:

    This is similar to the trash collection system we had in the 1970's - though we still used a garbage can. There had to be one driver and two trash guys running along the street grabbing garbage cans and dumping them in the back of that truck. I haven't seen a compactor truck like that in at least 20 years. Yeah, we all went to the system with the auto arm.

  9. marque2:

    Our trash, in my small town is by a private company, EdCo. They use the same bin you complain about, but it is huge, and we can get two if we like. Nearby San Diego, which uses San Diego trash services gets nothing but complaints, they picks up less and services costs 50% more. I am actually very happy with my trash service. You have couch, or appliance to get rid of, call them up, they will remove it in a day for $5

  10. Blackbeard:

    I live on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, one of the most expensive, and most liberal, places in the world. Garbage collection here looks just like the pictures you show except worse. The reason is that the sanitation union is very powerful so more efficient, and more aesthetic, collection methods are impossible to implement.

  11. David Zetland:

    I disagree, for two reasons. (1) I've lived in 5 places in Amstedam (and own a flat there now). It's only in the center where garbage is put out weekly (known day). In other places, garbage usually goes in underground bins that are emptied by VERY EFFICIENT trucks. (2) This system is due to a lack of space (as you can see) for bins on the road (or where to store them, when there are no "back allies"). It's the most effective.

    You need to get around more of the cities that you criticise. Next time, tell me you're there and I'll buy you a beer and provide accurate information.