Last week, on 24 June, catering staff organised by Unite the Union held a rally at the Royal London hospital in support of their five-day strike action.
The walkout was called by outsourced Serco cleaning staff in response to forced schedule changes, alongside bullying and harassment from Serco management.
Scourge of outsourcing
Serco is the infamous giant services outsourcer – also responsible for the disastrous Track and Trace programme.
The firm currently has a massive contract with Barts Health NHS Trust to deliver catering, cleaning, portering, security, and reception services to the hospital.
Over the course of the pandemic, catering staff at the Royal London hospital have been working as key workers, providing essential support to the sick and the local community. Many have contracted COVID as a result, with some of these workers even dying from the disease.
The response from Serco management, since last summer, has been to push forward a reallocation of shifts and holidays – all done entirely without consultation with any of the workers.
These changes to rotas mean that workers have to start at a different time each week, with split rest days. For example, some workers have to work 10 days in a row; and when they’re off sick or on annual leave, they are not paid. This means that a normal work-life balance is made completely impossible.
SERCO catering workers & members of @UniteLondonEast at the Royal London hospital are on strike, after irregular shifts were imposed.— Apsana Begum MP (@ApsanaBegumMP) June 24, 2021
All workers need work-life balance.
The pressures of a pandemic shouldn’t mean workers in hospital wards become cannon fodder for private profit. pic.twitter.com/4ouA8nvr9s
Profits vs lives
At the recent rally, stories were told of how workers were unable to take their children to school in the morning; or were having to leave their children at friends’ houses, only being able to pick them up at 9pm in the evening.
Others have been unable to attend essential college courses as a result of the forced rota changes. Workers have received letters from their GPs asking them to self isolate, only to be told by Serco that if they do not turn up to work, they will not be paid.
In the midst of all this, meanwhile, Serco generated revenue of £3.9 billion in 2020, alongside profits of between £160-£165 million in the same year – all thanks to the lucrative government contracts that they were handed during the pandemic.
We must be clear: These attacks on the workforce are driven solely by the need to maximise profits, above all else.
Discussing this dispute, Ruth Hydon, regional organiser for Unite, stated:
“At the root of this really is the privatisation of the [national health] service. Serco are there to make a profit. 90% of their costs are staff costs – so the only way they can make a profit is by squeezing our members: giving them more work to do; putting more pressure on them all the time.
“The workers have had enough of it. And this is just one group of workers – we’ve got hundreds of members at this hospital and other Barts Health NHS Trust hospitals.
“We’re about to start a consultative ballot on the 1% pay offer, which is all that Serco have offered. But this is a pay cut, since inflation is currently higher than that. It’s making them [the workers] worse off. And it’s just an insult after the work they’ve put in during the pandemic.
“Barts Health NHS Trust talks about how we’re all part of the ‘Barts family’, even if we work for different private contractors – but we’re not! Our members do not get treated the same as NHS workers do. At least our members would have fairness, respect, and nationally-negotiated pay if they were in-house.”
Across Britain and Europe, workers are being squeezed during the pandemic, forced to pay for a crisis they didn’t cause. Strikes like the one at the Royal London hospital are not the first of this kind – and they certainly will not be the last.
Last summer, outsourced hospital cleaners at Lewisham hospital went on strike after ISS refused to pay them wages they were entitled to.
Elsewhere, other employers are cynically using the pandemic to attack wages and working conditions.
Workers at London-based software company Goodlord, for example, were scandalously attacked with ‘fire and rehire’ tactics by the bosses. The new contracts imposed on them offered on average 20% less pay, on top of other cuts to maternity, holiday, and sick pay.
What all of these struggles have in common is that the bosses are using every dirty trick at their disposal to maximise profits at the expense of workers.
As the crisis of capitalism intensifies, practices like the ones Serco have used against the Royal London hospital cleaning staff will become the norm.
Save our NHS!
Years of cuts and privatisation have plunged the NHS into crisis. Parasites like Serco are pocketing the money that should be going towards healthcare and the essential workers that maintain the NHS.
Profiteering has no place in the NHS. Capitalism is killing us. We need socialist policies – of public ownership and workers’ control – to save our NHS.
The labour movement must therefore demand:
- An immediate end to Serco bullying and harassment. Full acceptance by management of the work roster that has been drafted by the catering staff and Unite.
- Full pay for staff who need to self-isolate.
- Kick out Serco and bring all services back in-house. Reverse all outsourcing and privatisation in the NHS!
- Expropriate the billionaires to save our NHS!