Rachel Eborall, a Mental Health worker at Mile End Hospital, and ex SERCO employee, writes in solidarity with the striking cleaning workers at Barts NHS trust.
In April 2017 SERCO, one of the largest multinationals, took over the cleaning contract of Barts NHS trust. Barts NHS trust is made up of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, The Royal London Hospital (Whitechapel), Mile End Hospital and Whipps Cross in Walthamstow. At £600 million over 10 years this is one of the largest cleaning contracts in the country. For people who don’t know the area, these are some of the most culturally diverse boroughs and are characterised by areas of extreme poverty with high rates of unemployment. However, that is not the whole story: this poverty stands in stark contrast to the extreme wealth of the City of London. It is only a 15 minute walk from Barts Hospital to the Bank of England.
As soon as SERCO took over the contract they gave the cleaners a letter saying that their paid tea breaks had been scrapped. The cleaners responded in magnificent fashion, unplugging vacuums cleaners, dropping mops and walking off the job until the paid break was reinstated. This worked, SERCO reinstated the paid tea breaks after a couple of days.
This was, however, only one part of the struggle. SERCO is explicit about the fact that it makes its profits by pushing down costs. For the cleaners this meant being told to do more in less time, not having access to the correct cleaning materials and being refused a pay rise in line with inflation. It has also proved impossible for the cleaners to report issues to management – one cleaner told me that they had noticed a dripping pipe (never a good thing) but had no way to report it to anyone.
Low paid cleaners, porters and security staff were fed up. Their working conditions had become worse, but many were already struggling. Many of the workers had to work extra hours or work two jobs to make ends meet. Parents complained about never having time to spend with their family or see their friends as they work so many hours. The increase in workload was leading to people going home in pain. Many of the cleaners and porters have spoken of swollen joints and bad backs. The workforce reflects the diversity of the local population and consists of many African, Eastern European, and Asian workers.
Unite balloted for action, calling for a fair and proper pay rise of 30p an hour. After workers had seen the fantastic response to the scrapping of the tea break many wanted to join the union. Unite did a brilliant job of supporting workers in joining the union, and encouraged by potential action there was an influx of new members. However, with the new anti-trade union laws, they didn’t just have to win a majority, they had to ensure that at least 50% of members participated in the ballot. This is no mean feat for any workforce, but for a workforce made up of mainly immigrant workers for whom English isn’t their first language living in London on poverty-pay it is particularly hard. One of the problems faced was that many workers have insecure accommodation meaning that addresses can change quite often and people may not always update their address with their union. Despite the potential difficulties, a massive 99% of workers voted to strike for a decent pay rise.
Workers went out for three days from 4 July, then a seven day stoppage from 11 July and they have just finished a 14 day strike. They have organised pickets on every day of the strike. They organised a demonstration that was addressed by John McDonnell and was supported by about 1000 marchers. They organised a lively protest outside SERCO’s share holder meeting and have been to visit the Bank of England strikers and BA strikers.
SERCO can afford the 30p pay rise. It made £82 million in profits last year and pays its chief executive £1 million a year. However SERCO is a company in trouble. Its profits are falling and the strategy to increase profits, is to cut costs. This means SERCO workers across the world will face the same pressures that the Barts cleaners, porters, caterers and security staff are facing. This offers the chance for international solidarity from all different sectors. But it also means that SERCO knows that if they capitulate to the strikers demands it could inspire workers worldwide to get organised and take action.
However we shouldn’t just take our demands to SERCO. We need to put pressure on Barts NHS trust who outsourced its cleaners, porters and security guards to such an unscrupulous company. There is something painfully ironic about the cleaners within a hospital being put under such physical strain and mental pressure that it makes them ill. The victory that cleaners at SOAS have just won – to be brought back in-house – can serve as a potential inspiration.
All strikes are important, but this strike is significant for a number of reasons. It is a strike about pay of workers who work in the NHS: if they win it would inspire other NHS to take action against the 1% pay cap. It is a strike of mainly migrant workers that shows that it isn’t migrants that push wages down but bosses. It is also a strike that highlights the dangers of privitisation in the NHS.
You can support the strike in all sorts of ways: raising money, sending delegations or inviting a striker to meetings of trade union branch meetings.