Contracted hospital workers in London have begun a two-week strike against employers Serco, demanding a real wage increase, pay equality, and an end to outsourcing. The trade unions must unite and fight to kick the profiteers out of our NHS.
Outsourced workers from three London hospitals are out in force this week, striking and protesting against unjust pay and conditions.
Starting yesterday, staff at Royal London, St Barts, and Whipps Cross hospitals are undertaking a two-week-long strike against their employers, the outsourcing giant Serco, who have refused to provide them with the wages and treatment they deserve.
Organised in Unite the Union, the hospital workers are not only demanding a proper pay rise, instead of the pathetic below-inflation current offer of 3%, but are also calling on management at local Barts Health NHS Trust to reverse all outsourcing, and to bring these jobs and services back in-house.
This latest strike follows on from similar action last summer, when outsourced staff at Royal London walked out in response to bullying and intimidation by Serco management, on top of imposed changes to their working schedules.
Now this anger has spread to include two other nearby hospitals, where Serco-contracted workers – including security, porters, cleaners, and caterers – face further attacks and real-terms wage cuts.
The strike is set to last for at least a fortnight, until Sunday 13 February, with more rallies in support of the hospital workers planned for outside St Barts and Whipps Cross this Wednesday and Friday, respectively.
Unite, however, now under the leadership of left-winger Sharon Graham, has warned Serco bosses and Barts managers that further action will follow if the workers’ demands are not met.
The current dispute centres around the question of pay.
Serco originally offered the workers a shameful 1% pay rise. But under pressure from below, following a 97% vote amongst Unite members in favour of strike action, this was later adjusted to the (still measly) 3% deal that is currently on the table.
Workers across Britain are facing a ‘cost of living catastrophe’, with official inflation figures already shooting past 5%, predicted to go over 7% in the months ahead, as household energy prices soar. Serco bosses’ insulting 3% offer, therefore, clearly represents a massive real-terms pay cut.
And despite risking their lives in essential roles throughout the pandemic, often provided with inadequate (or no) PPE, these key workers – predominantly from BAME communities – are paid around 15% less than staff employed directly by the NHS.
As well as demanding a genuine pay rise, the workers are therefore also demanding full equality in relation to wages, terms, and conditions, with all outsourced staff brought in-house and onto the same ‘Agenda for Change’ contracts that cover other healthcare and hospital workers.
“For the last two years, throughout the pandemic, we have been working alongside our colleagues in this hospital in the exact same conditions,” stated Abigail, a striking worker at Royal London, speaking to Socialist Appeal supporters at yesterday’s rally. “But we have been paid 15% less.”
“The NHS workers taking strike action have their union’s unwavering support,” tweeted Unite general secretary Sharon Graham yesterday morning. “They face the same risks as NHS-employed staff. Why on earth are they being paid significantly worse while being treated disgracefully?”
“It’s time to end this injustice,” the Unite leader continued. “It’s time to bring these workers, employed by Serco not the NHS, back into NHS employment.”
The #NHS workers taking strike action have their union’s unwavering support. Why on earth are they being paid significantly worse while being treated disgracefully? It’s time to bring these workers, employed by Serco not the NHS, back into NHS employment. https://t.co/gvgWpA0TOH
— Sharon Graham (@UniteSharon) January 31, 2022
Parasitic Serco bosses have no doubt profited handsomely from outsourced NHS contracts – not only in the case of these hospital workers, but throughout the pandemic.
At yesterday’s demonstration outside the Royal London, for example, one Unite speaker informed the crowd that the outsourcing monopoly has been paid over £750 million for COVID-related contracts. This includes providing services for the disastrous test-and-trace system.
As a result, Serco’s owners – including CEO Rupert Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, and brother of former Tory MP Nicholas Soames – saw the company’s profits rise by 36% in 2020 compared to the previous year; and then double again in the first six months of 2021.
Serco’s top executives, meanwhile, paid themselves £7.4 million last year. And yet they claim to be unable to afford a real wage increase for these essential workers – the exploitation of whom provides the bosses with such handsome profits.
Indeed, alongside tokenistic claps, all that these workers received in reward for their tireless efforts throughout the pandemic was a meagre £100 bonus.
Outsourced NHS workers across @NHSBartsHealth earn less than directly-employed equivalents. @SercoGroup paid bonuses of £7.4m to their top two executives AND report operating profits of £225m. @UniteLondonEast
members won’t accept being bullied and underpaid. We stand with them pic.twitter.com/Vr9CBW5wNp
— Tower Hamlets Momentum (@THMomentum) January 31, 2022
Barts bosses to blame
Blame for this injustice does not simply lie with unscrupulous Serco bosses, however.
“Ultimately, Barts must take responsibility for this mess,” stated Unite regional officer Tabusam Ahmed. “The Trust allowed Serco to exploit and underpay the workforce by outsourcing this contract.”
Unite member Abigail, for example, told us that she has worked at Royal London for over 10 years. And it is within this time period that her job was outsourced by Barts Trust.
“It is the patients who are suffering as a result,” asserted Abigail, “not Serco and management.”
That is why those on strike – such as Abigail, alongside hundreds of others – are clear that their protest is not simply against Serco, but against Barts management.
As Unite London regional secretary Peter Kavanagh correctly noted at yesterday’s rally:
“Why is there millions and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going into the pockets of these private profiteers, when it could be used in-house to provide decent jobs, wages, conditions, and services?”
— Unite London & Eastern (@UniteLondonEast) January 31, 2022
Solidarity and support
Outsourced workers across these hospitals are determined to fight and win their demands for pay and conditions, and to see their jobs brought back in-house. This much was clear from the energetic but indignant mood on display at the protest and picket lines outside Royal London yesterday.
At the same time, intransigent Serco bosses and Barts Trust managers are digging their heels in, refusing to budge beyond the current 3% pay offer.
It is therefore vital that the whole of the labour movement gets behind the hospital workers’ struggle, and its demands for decent pay and an end to outsourcing, in order to ensure victory in this battle.
The sight of banners from surrounding trades councils and local Labour parties at yesterday’s rally was encouraging in this respect, as were speeches of support from leading labour movement figures, such as Poplar and Limehouse MP Apsana Begum.
It is vital that the trade unions offer their full support and solidarity to these striking hospital workers. After all, it is not only Unite members in the healthcare sector who are feeling the impacts of privatisation and austerity.
Outsourced refuse collection workers, also organised in Unite, have taken similar strike action recently against the same profiteering Serco bosses. And council-employed bin workers in Coventry are currently on strike in a dispute over pay.
At the same time, nurses and other healthcare workers have campaigned vigorously over the last year to win the pay rise they deserve, only to find themselves consistently rebuffed by Tory ministers and NHS managers.
Save our NHS
With workers across the board seeing their wages and conditions coming under attack from the bosses and the Tories, it is vital that the trade unions come together in order to coordinate a united, militant response.
In this respect, pay campaigns by Unite members – in healthcare and other public services – should be linked with those by Unison members in the same sectors.
Such coordinated action, in turn, should pave the way for a one-day public sector strike, in order to build a movement capable of delivering a knockout blow to this criminal Tory government.
Demands for decent pay and for the reversal of outsourcing, meanwhile, should be combined with a clear socialist alternative: to bring all healthcare and public services under public ownership and democratic control, with full-funding of decent jobs and wages provided by the expropriation of the banks and major monopolies – including vultures like Serco.
Capitalist cuts and privatisation are killing our NHS. Only bold socialist policies can save it, and end the exploitation of workers like those currently on strike across London’s hospitals.