Lewisham Hospital picket line. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Lewisham Hospital picket line. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

The coronavirus crisis exposes the rot at the heart of Tory policy on the NHS as workers on the frontline of combating the pandemic are the worst treated, reports Tom Griffiths

Today cleaning, portering and catering staff – where Coronavirus cases have now been confirmed – have walked out of Lewisham hospital after private contractor ISS failed to pay their wages or provide protective clothing. 

Workers at the hospital who are subcontracted by corporate company ISS, said some of them couldn’t afford food, their rent or even bus fares as ISS had delayed recent wages payments, underpaid or in some cases workers had not been paid at all.

Counterfire’s Shabbir Lakha spoke to some of the workers on the GMB picket line, who said ISS’ behaviour was disgraceful and had put them in a really difficult situation. They talked about the risk they are taking with their jobs, not being given protective clothing and then not even being paid for it and they demanded to have their contracts brought in-house because private companies are consistently failing them. They criticised the government for not doing anything to support workers on the frontline of dealing with the coronavirus like themselves and they said the only support they’ve received is from their union.

As Coronavirus cases have now been confirmed at the hospital, that these essential and most-at-risk workers have been treated so appallingly is a damning indictment of the disregard not only to outsourced workers, but also to the NHS as a whole, and further proof that the creeping privatisation of the NHS is having an adverse effect on the pay and conditions of its essential staff.

While statutory sick pay is capped at £94.00 per week, and some workers, especially those on zero hours and insecure contracts are not even eligible for it, it’s clear that it is the most vulnerable elements of the working class who will be forced to put themselves most at risk.

On top of that most low-paid cleaners often fall foul to this Government’s vile ‘Hostile Environment’ policies which have been proved to cause a climate of fear preventing many from the Windrush generation and other undocumented migrants from seeking help for fear of charges they can’t hope to pay or being reported to the Home Office.

In a press release about the dispute at Lewisham Hospital Helen O’Connor, GMB Organiser, said,

For many of these workers missing just one pay cheque means not being able to pay the rent or put food on their families’ tables. They are at the end of their tether following weeks of their pay being short – now today they get no pay at all. This could not have happened at a worse time – we are facing a coronavirus pandemic and infected patients are now being admitted into the hospital. Meanwhile the people who are meant to be keeping the hospital clean and safe are not getting paid. Once again, the dangers of outsourcing in the NHS are laid bare for all to see.

It is essential we continue to support workers in these kinds of disputes and the others that will undoubtedly follow and call for the scrapping of legislation on charging undocumented patients, so enabling them to seek help from the NHS without fear.

It is also vital we demand the immediate requisition of beds from the private health sector into public service to fight the outbreak of Coronavirus, and essentially, increase statutory sick pay. £94/pw is not enough.