Demonstration with signs 'NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now!' demonstration, February 2018. Photo: Jim Aindow

Exploited workers out in high spirits for the first round of one of the longest strikes in NHS history, reports Ellen Graubart

Over 170 cleaners and porters who work at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington began strike action over low rates of pay and poor working conditions on the 28 October in what will be one of the longest strikes in NHS history. The workers, whose services have been outsourced by the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust to the French multinational Sodexo, are demanding equality in pay and terms of conditions between outsourced facilities staff and in-house NHS staff -  as set by the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay scale system, which stipulates complete equality in pay and terms of conditions between outsourced facilities staff and in-house NHS staff.

Sodexo pays the workers an hourly rate of £6.16 – £8.21, whereas in-house cleaners and porters receive £11.31 – £12.92. Working conditions are also very poor. The St. Mary’s Hospital cleaners and porters are being supported by the London-based trade union, United Voices of the World (UVW), the majority of whose members are migrants who work in the low paid economy. They are mainly from Latin American and the Caribbean, but also from Africa, Asia and Europe. 

The following is from the UVW press release of Monday, October 14, 2019:

“The striking workers only have Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and cite this as forcing them to work on wards when ill – sometimes with contagious illnesses such as the flu – as they cannot afford to take time off when sick. The workers are also forced to change in mice ridden dimly lit and mixed sex changing rooms located in the hospital basement. They are campaigning for better single sex changing facilities as well for an end to discrimination against outsourced staff that has seen Imperial ban them from eating in NHS canteens and resting in NHS staffrooms.”

Co-Founder of UVW Petros Elia said that Sodexo, having turned a profit of 997 million euros in 2018, can well afford to pay the workers in line with NHS rates; he urges them to do so, otherwise the strikes will continue. 

The strike action began with a bang: with music, whistles, horns and dancing. And although they were angry over pay and conditions, everyone was smiling, and confident that in the end their demands would be met. It was an exhilarating experience – and I am most confident that the hardworking people, who are crucial in the running of this and all of our hospitals will win their battle for justice. 

The present round of actions will continue until December 13th; if more strike action is necessary, they will continue their fight for equal pay and employment rights. 

The strike dates are as follows:

St. Mary’s Hospital – Round 1. 28th, 29th and 31st of October. Round 2. 11th, 12th and 13th of November. Round 3. 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th of November. Round 4. 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th of December.

The extremely important contribution that the porters and cleaners make to the running of our NHS needs to be fully acknowledged – support at the picket line would be greatly appreciated. 

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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