Royal London Hospital Royal London Hospital. Photo: Flickr/Katrin Gilger

Overworked NHS staff take industrial action against Serco, writes Kara Bryan

Over a thousand workers from four St. Barts Trust hospitals voted to take industrial action on Tuesday against new employer Serco in what looked to be the biggest cleaners’ strike in British history.  

St. Barts Health NHS Trust awarded Serco the lucrative 7-year, £600m contract in April for cleaning, portering, catering and security in April. Serco, a £3 billion multinational company better known for operating prisons, has a poor reputation. In recent years, it has endured scandal after scandal and watched its share prices plummet as confidence in the company waned.  

Through their union Unite, hospital staff are demanding a 30p an hour pay rise in line with inflation and a significant reduction in their workload. Staff have accused Serco of under-staffing and taking a hard line against workers, enforcing gruelling workloads, cutting corners and jeopardizing patient safety to drive profits. 

The contract was awarded to Serco in April in an attempt to address the trust’s £135 million deficit; the largest deficit ever recorded of any NHS trust.  

According to St. Barts Trust, the deal will save the trust millions by delivering a range of services under one supplier. The trust’s accounts published for the financial year 2016-17 this week have confirmed the trust has almost halved its deficit to £69.5 million. 

But the reduced deficit, which was itself the direct result of deliberate and sustained underfunding, has come at significant expense to hospital staff who have complained of excessive workloads and gruelling schedules.     

Within 3 days of taking over, Serco announced it would be abolishing the 10 minute morning tea breaks with immediate effect, prompting 120 staff at the Royal London Hospital to walkout, demanding their immediate reinstatement. Serco conceded and the breaks were reinstated. 

Hospital staff have complained of having to do the jobs of two people, unjustifiable management scrutiny, intimidation and being asked to complete a myriad of tasks in an impossible time frame. 

Staff have reported colleagues starting work half an hour early (unpaid) and working through their breaks just to keep their jobs, workers breaking down in tears and sustained personal injuries through overwork. 

Demands for an additional 30p an hour were immediately dismissed. NHS workers have already endured pay freezes for several years as stories of nurses using pay day loans and surviving on food banks have been widely circulated.   

The excuse given by trusts before privatisation was that the NHS could not afford to increase staff pay but while Serco’s CEO and grandson of Winston Churchill, Rupert Soames makes more than £2 million a year in bonuses alone, the dismissal of a meagre 30p an hour is utterly inexcusable. 

The excessive demands levied against hospital staff has significantly compromised their ability to do their jobs safely. Stories of detergents being watered down and other cost-cutting measures jeopardize patient safety. Unable to take the pressure anymore, many are threatening to quit and seek employment elsewhere. 

Ultimately, Serco’s appalling treatment of what were, until very recently, proud NHS staff, many of whom have spent most of their adult lives working in the corridors of our NHS hospitals, serves as a cautionary tale and a stark reminder of the perils of privatisation.

Kara Bryan

Kara Bryan is a writer and activist and regular contributor to the Counterfire website. She is a member of Counterfire and Stop the War

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