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Risk and Reward

Outsourcing - 03 Sep 2020

Our battle for NHS sick pay for outsourced key workers at Homerton Hospital

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Press Office

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Back in October I organised to meet our members who work for global outsourcing giant ISS at Hackney’s Homerton Hospital, in East London. Knowing their contract was up for renewal in October 2020. I asked them if they were willing to take action to win full NHS sick pay. They didn’t take much convincing.

All the outsourced key workers I’ve ever met have plenty to be angry about. The cleaners and porters at Homerton Hospital were being badly bullied and grossly underpaid. They were entitled only to rock bottom, statutory sick pay (SSP) less than £100 per week - nowhere near enough to live on, whatever your circumstances.

This draconian policy is commonplace for key health workers unlucky enough to have been outsourced to private contractors.

With statutory sick pay, the first three days of illness are also unpaid – a deliberate tactic used to force people to work if they possibly can, and one that penalises those who are seriously ill.

Word quickly spread round the Hospital: we had a window to win but we needed to fight. In two weeks, our membership doubled.

Security had been called out by management to remove us from the site, they had circulated memos dissuading staff from joining our union – things were heating up.

A giant Christmas Card, addressed to the NHS trust had been a crucial organising tool. Our leaders set about getting 50 signatures from nurses and doctors as well as their ISS colleagues, they got 250 signatures in just 24 hours.

Motivating low paid, insecure workers to take a risk requires urgency and a sense of burning injustice. This fight on sick pay made our members brave – it inspired them to agitate and resolve to build the chorus of public support required to win. We were ready for our first protest.

On a bitter morning in December we assembled. For an outsourced worker, raising your head of parapet takes guts and the threat of serious repercussions was very real. We brought reinforcements to boost confidence.

A local vicar, who we discovered was a dab hand at public action was invited – a value driven person who wasn’t afraid to lend his dog collar to fight injustice. The Mayor of Hackney – a strong advocate of insourcing and a big name in the area also joined us.

A giant Christmas Card, addressed to the NHS trust had been a crucial organising tool - our boldest leaders set about getting fifty signatures from nurses and doctors as well as their ISS colleagues.

In just 24 hours the leaders got 250 signatures. Despite pouring rain the cleaners turned out in force after their shift, donned their Santa hats and together with the Mayor, Vicar and local photographer we marched to deliver the card. The door of the Homerton Hospital was blocked by security – we were all refused entry, a tense exchange that served to show up the Trust and helped us build yet more support.

We continued staging protests, building members - and started winning. Before long we were meeting with the Trust HR Director, an investigation into bullying by management was launched, missed pay and general flouting of basic employment standards was being addressed.

Local MPs joined the fight and the Labour Party activists started frustrating and disrupting the Trust Board’s public meetings. Activists organised mass letter writing to the Trust boss, other unions joined the fight, the press were lapping it up.

We absolutely did not want to go on strike during the worst health crisis in living memory, but we were given no choice.

And then Covid19 hit.

The members stepped up in the face of the pandemic - cleaning the Covid19 wards and porterering coronavirus patients, all the while facing the same deadly risk to their lives as their NHS colleagues - but with a financial penalty should they fall sick themselves.

An enforced pause on the campaign – meant redirecting our efforts to the fight to protect our members on the frontline. But in the midst of the pandemic we suffered an unexpected blow – away from public view the Trust had quietly completed a deal with ISS – and without union or staff consultation to extend the expiring contract for an additional 5 years. The deal with ISS included no improvement to working conditions of cleaners, porters, catering and domestic staff

After a quick ring round to update the leaders – we began preparing for industrial action. It’s important to note at this point, we absolutely did not want to go on strike during the worst health crisis in living memory, but we were given no choice – industrial action was the only available route.

We’d built a broad base of supporters for our campaign. From NHS staff across the Trust, community, faith and political leaders and the local public all backed our ask for a fair deal for our members. They faced the same risk and deserved the same protection.

Our key organisers were ready, with membership increasing, activists and supporters were pulling out all the stops to appeal the Trust’s contract decision.

After tough negotiations a new offer was presented: London Living Wage, year on year, access to the Trust’s internal equality network, access to the Trust’s internal whistleblowing reporting, a complete overhaul of management and the culture - and full NHS sick pay.

For an outsourced worker, raising your head of parapet takes guts and the threat of serious repercussions was very real.

This victory belongs to the Homerton Hospital cleaners, porters, domestics and catering assistants who were brave enough to risk everything to fight for what they knew they deserved: equality with the sick pay of their NHS colleagues.

By organising around an objective injustice, they built a diverse coalition of supporters, while at the same time, agitating their colleagues to build real strength. When it came to the crunch they were ready to escalate to action, win the argument and this campaign.

They face the same risk and now they’ve won the same reward – the greater protections they know they deserve.

 

Lola McEvoy

Key Worker Organiser, GMB London

 
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