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Croydon Hospital GMB protest

Croydon Hospital GMB protest. Photo: Helen O'Connor

Ancillary workers at Croydon University Hospital are preparing to ballot to strike against serial exploiter G4S, reports GMB organiser Helen O'Connor

Exploitative contractor G4S runs the domestic and portering services in Croydon University Hospital. Most of the workforce are migrants from Africa, the Carribean, Asia and Eastern Europe and the conditions they endure daily would not look out of place in a Charles Dickens novel.

These workers are building solidarity with each other across race divides as they become properly organised in a trade union for the first time. They are slowly winning support from the other groups of hospital workers who are realising how badly they are being treated.

No NHS worker is safe from these private companies who are slowly but surely advancing right into the core of the NHS and these days clinical staff can find themselves forced into the private sector. This will become more common as private companies are starting to monopolise NHS commissioning bodies. The Tories are pushing through legislation to speed up the process.

For years exploitative outsourcing giant G4S has amassed huge profits from the labour power of the ancillary workers who toil in Croydon University Hospital for the minimum wage, currently £8.89 an hour. The workers know they will not get a penny from G4S if they get sick. They even have to fight hard for the Statutory Sick pay which is set so low that these workers have reached the conclusion that they have no option but to go into work even when they are sick. Daily we hear distressing stories of workers on the brink of collapse struggling to come into work.

Many of the workers are part time or agency and desperate for hours to make ends meet but it they dare to complain about their terrible working conditions the first thing that gets taken away is overtime. This is the tactic utilised by G4S that has ensured compliance and silence for a very long time.

Up to now the workers have been scared of the G4S management bullies and the constant threats of getting disciplined but they are starting to realise that they have little choice but to fight back or they will remain as they are. They have been engaging with GMB Union and not just that, they are playing leading roles in the union. Where some workers are rising up and taking a lead many quickly follow.

The workers have formulated their own demands for occupational sick pay and the real London living wage. They have been greatly inspired by their brothers and sisters in St Georges hospital who have recently forced their employer, Mitie, to implement a sick pay scheme.

The G4S workers held a fantastic protest outside Croydon University Hospital at the end of January and they were greatly boosted by the support of the local community who stood solidly with them and offered them words of solidarity and encouragement.

As the campaign progresses the workers' instincts have been absolutely correct at every stage. They want their union of choice, GMB, to engage with their employer and the trust. They want to be heard and they want to know why they can’t work for the NHS and get the same pay, terms and conditions of their colleagues on NHS contracts. They have asked GMB to request that the Trust takes them back in house and I met with CEO Matthew Kershaw via the joint staff side to make the case for him to approach the Trust Board to take these workers back in house.

It is disappointing that the Croydon University Hospital leadership is currently supporting G4S and the company continues to gaslight these workers and engage in a pretence that nothing is wrong. They claim that the issues stem from individual complaints that can be quickly resolved if only the union would give up the names of those complaining.

We know better than to throw our members upon the mercy of G4S when they are being treated do badly and GMB is about building solidarity in workplaces - we do not act with employers to destroy it. There will be no offering up of individual workers to be bullied or sacked and there will be no cosy deals made behind closed doors.

The workers know that the apparent unwillingness of the Trust and G4S to solve the crisis means that they now have no option but to go the next stage of their struggle. They have formed a strike committee and GMB members have overwhelmingly voted for industrial action. Many more workers are joining GMB because they can see that we are serious about leading them into collective action against G4S.

GMB has now served a formal notice to G4S for strike action. The strike ballot will open on 4 March and run for a period of two weeks. If G4S and the Trust don’t take these workers seriously they will find that the hospital will be hit with a series of disruptive strikes throughout spring and summer, autumn and winter.

The workers know that their jobs are vital to the hospital and that when they strike in large numbers the waste will pile up, nothing will be cleaned and no patient will move anywhere. It is up to the trust and G4S to stop the strikes because they have a choice - they can pay these workers wages they can live on, pay them occupational sick pay and end their exploitation for good.

The struggle against outsourcing is everyone's fight because these companies drive down standards in our hospitals. The only way these private companies can deliver contracts cheaply is to attack the pay, terms and conditions of the workers and cut the numbers doing the work. This impacts nutrition and sanitation standards which affects patients. It is far better for workers to strike for a limited period than to allow the continuous running down of hospital services which are being made unsafe by the profiteers and their agents running our hospitals.

When the G4S workers embark on their first experience of strike action, GMB will be calling on the local community and campaign groups for support and solidarity once again. This is a ‘David versus Goliath’  struggle of a band of ordinary NHS workers who are brave enough to take on an outsourcing giant like G4S. They deserve absolute solidarity and support from patients, staff and their local community. We know from our experiences of organising other outsourced hospital workers that these workers can win so we will look forward to absolutely everyone joining us on the first picket lines in the spring.

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