Domestic staff in London hospitals have begun a week-long strike in a dispute with private contractor Serco over low pay and job cuts, with organisers saying it is the biggest cleaners’ strike in the UK’s history.
Hospitals that are part of Barts Health NHS trust were expected to face serious consequences as more than 700 cleaners, security guards, catering staff and porters employed by Serco walked out on Tuesday. The action came after a ballot resulted in 99% of workers voting to strike.
“We are the people who often get forgotten about but our work is an essential link in the chain of care that makes the NHS,” said Len Hockey, one of the striking workers, who has been a porter for 28 years at Whipps Cross hospital in east London.
Unite members employed by Serco requested a 30p per hour increase in pay last month, which was rejected. “Our claim is a modest claim,” Hockey said. “We don’t want to take industrial action but we have been forced to in order to maintain very basic standards of living.” Hockey said that since the Barts trust was taken over by private contractors standards for workers had dropped dramatically. According to Hockey, many workers have suffered real-time pay cuts greater than the 14% cuts experienced by other NHS staff. “Until recently there were some members of staff here on less than the London living wage,” he said.
“Costs of living in London have increased so much recently that many workers have to do two or three jobs just to keep going and many people have become sick as a result.”
Phil Mitchell, the contract director at Serco, insisted the company wanted to pay workers fairly and added that it had agreed to pay the London living wage of £9.75 an hour universally. “We’re determined to ensure that Unite’s action does not impact on patients,” he said in a statement. “We have robust plans in place aimed at ensuring we can continue to support the trust’s hospitals to operate as normal during the planned action.”
However, last week a two-day preliminary strike at Barts hospitals – including the Royal London, St Bartholomew’s and Mile End – caused significant problems, the union said.
By the second day, Unite said, toilets were unclean, beds were left on floors as no porters were available to carry them, and many patients did not receive hot meals due to lack of catering staff. Barts said that members of its hospital staff did not recognise that account.
“Serco feel they can just ride it out,” said Unite’s digital organiser, Matthew Dore-Weeks. “But the two-day strike so far has seen huge effects on the public which will get worse as the strikes continue.”
Last year Serco won the £600m “soft services” contract for Barts trust and made an overall profit of £82m.Cleaners say the company has increased their workloads to unsustainable levels and many have reported severe hygiene issues in hospitals which have been hotspots for infections such as MRSA and C diff.
“Since Serco came there has been a lot of changes,” said one cleaner at the Royal London. “We never have time for breaks, which has affected my health. Now I have to take other work during weekends, which was my time to see my family and go to church. We are so important to keeping patients healthy but they don’t listen to us – they think domestic staff are invisible. But without us who is going to feed patients or keep the hospitals clean?”
The seven-day stoppage will run until Monday 17 July and will be followed by a 14-day strike starting on 25 July. If no changes are made further strike action will be planned for August and September.
Barts Health NHS Trust said: “We have been working closely with both sides to find a resolution to this dispute, urging them to seek a solution through the mediation service ACAS.
“Contingency plans are in place to minimise any disruption to staff and patients at our hospitals. All patient care at each of our hospitals will continue and we advise patients to attend their hospital appointments as normal.”
• This piece was amended on 12 July 2017 to include Barts Health NHS Trust’s response to claims of unclean conditions during the preliminary strike.