Counterfire spoke to striking security workers at Royal Berkshire Hospital about the conditions they're facing and why they're taking action
Why did you go on strike?
We went on strike for many reasons, the biggest being pay and conditions. Because we are virtually on the lowest pay as per the government guidelines as to the minimum wage. We have 20 different people that work for the company with three or four different contracts among different employees with different stipulations in them due to TUPE.
A lot of us do not get any sick pay at all and we are working in a hospital with lots of sick people so if we are off sick we get statutory sick pay and nothing else and other conditions that we don’t feel are right. This was our third block of strike action. We were out a week in December, we did two weeks in January and then nearly 5 weeks till March 7th. We are now in talks with Acas but we’re prepared to take further action if needed.
We don’t want to be striking, but it’s been ongoing now ever since Kingdom came in, the security company which took over nearly two years ago. But really it’s been going on for longer than that because it was the same dispute with the other company and we felt that we had to do it - and once we started doing it we had to keep doing it – which is why we’re here now. And we just feel that it’s time that we heard.
So what are your demands?
£12 an hour for offices, £13 for supervisors, sick pay from day one for a set period, whatever they decide the period is going to be, and that we’re all on the same contract and all get the same thing. That’s the basic demand. There’s other things as well, but they’re peripheral to the main things, those are the three main things.
And the variation in contracts make a big difference. One person has been here eleven years and his contract is with a previous company which did give sick pay. That is one of the big things with Kingdom is they say they don’t give sick pay across-the-board. But if some get it how is it fair that we don’t?
But even those who are getting sick pay, like one guy who’s been here 14 years and probably on one of the best contracts, he doesn’t get sick pay from the first day – he has to be sick for three days first and then the sick pay will start. And working in such an environment where it’s so easy for you to get sick. Even when there is a pandemic we’re still working with people who aren’t very well. They have viruses and diseases and whatever and we do have to go onto the wards on a regular basis to deal with these people.
Before Covid there were certain wards that were called D and V... diarrhoea and vomiting, so no one was allowed on that ward unless there was an emergency but the security still have to attend if there was an accident. So we would be attending knowing that if we did get sick, you know, some of us were forced to come to in to work hiding our illness because we can’t afford time off without sick pay.
If we work here at the hospital we should be treated the same as the nurses and the doctors who get sick pay from day one. Nurses and doctors are called frontline workers but as security we also have to go into every ward. And when this pandemic first started, they were very bad about giving us PPE. When we said ‘well what if we refuse to go on a ward?’ and the reply we were given was to look for another job.
No ifs, buts or maybes, if you don’t go then then you’re walking.
Now the company are using agency staff and people are starting to realise the importance of security and the value of our work. Because the guys they are using don’t have the training we have. We’ve had to do a certain amount of extra training because of what we do, much more than your average security guard does. Because the trust demand that we have these things for example the MAYBO training control and restraint. And that again is why we feel we should be paid reasonably because we do have these qualifications.
Our job also goes much further than security. We have to deal with parking, reception duties, if there’s a major problem on the ward, we’ll go down to help intervene. So for all the work we do, the least the company can do is treat us fairly.
How have Kingdom responded to your demands?
Very negatively. Very very negatively. I mean Kingdom, they’ve got such a setup, for example they’ve got managers at every stage, every step of the process. We try to communicate with them but we get nothing back whatsoever. Multiple times we’ve sent emails and received nothing back, we sent another one but we received nothing back.
On the off-chance we see a manager in the office we have corner him to get some sort of response, but I mean even then you can’t get anything out of them, you really can’t. If you raise anything, they just give a standard response to everything, if they don’t like it they just don’t talk to you, they don’t reply.
It’s not until we got Unite involved and the union and all their backing that we’ve had a few responses because they know they can’t ignore the union. The union know how to deal with these things. If it’s us, they just completely ignore, they ignore everything, they just seem to do what they want.
Just out of interest, were you already members of a union when this started?
Well this all started when we started asking for a pay rise and putting our demands forward, we weren’t members of a union at that time. But some of the guys got together a few years ago and said you know what we need some sort of official backing, that’s the only way they’re going to listen to us. And so we started joining unions and we’ve encouraged new employees to join the union as well and its paying off now.
When you aren’t part of a union there would always be a handful of people that were 50/50 about what to do and what not to do, but since we got the backing of the union, a lot of people are willing to do whatever needs to be done now.
Instead of twenty individual voices we’re now a single voice. We are a team now and it’s much more difficult to fight a team than different individuals.
What is the mood among strikers?
They are all in a good mood.
I didn’t participate in the last strike, I just joined this one. I feel really energetic. It is time for us to make our voices heard, and across the team, everyone is ready, and is in a good mood, good spirits, willing to stand up and defend what we’re fighting for, what we deserve to have. Everyone knows they are fighting for their rights.
We’re all determined to keep going. We’re not asking for the world, we just want to be treated fairly.
Have you received solidarity from other unions or organisations or the public?
The solidarity has been amazing. Absolutely amazing.
We’ve got a WhatsApp group set up and our union rep is always posting solidarity messages from other branches, even from MPs and other political figures. It helps keep the spirit up it really does. Knowing that there are other people out there that support us.
And not just the messages, we’ve also had donations to the strike fund. In the last block we collected around £3,000 and this time there’s already £5000. It all helps, just to keep your head above water to make it possible to keep taking action. If it wasn’t there then most people couldn’t do it because we couldn’t afford to. Everybody’s still got all their bills to pay.
But all the support really helps and we are determined to keep fighting until we win.
Finally, what can people do to support you?
We’ve got a Megaphone petition which has had over 1,600 and signatures. This is going to the managing director of Kingdom in his email so please sign and share it. You could also write to your MP and ask them to support us.
And yeah, keep sending us your messages of solidarity, from yourselves and your union branches, and help us get the word out on social media.
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