Cleaners are suing Great Ormond Street for alleged institutional racism
Ethnic minority hospital cleaners say they were denied NHS contracts and paid less than the majority-white NHS staff
“We’re cleaners and we’re proud of it… Some people think that because we’re cleaners… we don’t deserve anything more than what we’ve already got… This is wrong.”
These are the words of Latif*, a cleaner who has joined forces with 79 other Black, brown and migrant cleaners to sue their employer, the Great Ormond Street Hospital, (GOSH) over years of what they describe as racial discrimination.
The group, who are from ethnic minority backgrounds, say they were not offered NHS staff contracts, meaning they lost out on the higher salaries, sick pay, overtime and holiday pay that other directly employed, majority-white GOSH workers received.
Supported by the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, the cleaners this month spent ten days in a hearing that Petros Elia, the general secretary for UVW, says is part of a “decade’s worth of struggle to try and eradicate inequalities based on racial and class lines in workplaces, primarily in the public sector”.
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The hearing has now concluded but a final judgement could take months. If successful, the cleaners could be awarded between £80,000 and £190,000 each.
Freedom of Information requests sent by UVW to GOSH in 2020 revealed that the children’s hospital did not conduct any equality impact assessments before outsourcing hundreds of mainly Black and brown cleaners to a third-party private contractor, OCS Group UK Ltd, in 2016.
They wanted to force us to clean Covid-19 patients’ rooms
This meant that during the pandemic, while the nation clapped for them every Thursday, GOSH’s cleaners didn’t have guaranteed income provisions for sickness. “We complained when the pandemic started,” said Latif.
“They wanted to force us to clean Covid-19 patients’ rooms, which I stood against. I said we cannot clean these rooms. We don’t have sick pay. This is a risk. We can’t risk [our health] if we don’t have sick pay.”
Many outsourced workers do not have guaranteed sick pay. In the case of GOSH’s cleaners, this meant that if they caught Covid, they would have had to rely on the government’s statutory sick pay, which was raised to £94.25 a week (about £19 a day) and extended to include those self-isolating without symptoms in 2020.
In contrast, NHS employees who get sick are eligible for up to six months off at full pay.
The low statutory sick pay meant cleaners like Latif were forced to choose between going to work with Covid and losing money while self-isolating. Meanwhile, he said, the hospital management, who are mostly white, could “go off on paid annual leave, or paid sick leave”.
The workers also described feeling bullied and discriminated against by OCS management, as well as feeling overworked and being left without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and uniforms.
Aminata*, another GOSH cleaner taking part in the claim, told openDemocracy: “If you have a problem, you go to the managers, you try to report [it]. The managers, they don’t listen. OCS, they don’t listen. The way they treat people [is] really… bad.
“When I say bad… [it’s] bad. Big people like us will be crying like children,” she says as she recalls an incident with OCS management that left her in tears.
In August 2021, following a campaign by UVW and threats of strike action, the cleaners forced GOSH to ditch OCS and employ them as in-house NHS staff.
Contracts for NHS staff are governed by the Agenda for Change (AfC) agreement which UVW says provides much better conditions than those offered to privately outsourced workers.
The cleaners say they expected their terms and conditions to be immediately brought in line with the AfC agreement, which entitles them to sick pay and holiday pay and brings their salaries up to £11.84 per hour from £10.75.
But it took GOSH 16 months to implement the cleaners’ new terms and conditions across the board.
UVW has accused the hospital of “unreasonable and unnecessary delays to bringing the cleaners to full NHS AfC rates”.
The whole process, it’s so painful
“We have to fight before we can get something… The whole process, it’s so painful,” Aminata says.
“We’ve been denied so many things which are simple and easy for us to get before reaching the tribunal,” adds Latif.
When approached for comment, GOSH said: “For the past 18 months we have worked closely with our staff and their representatives and almost all our domestic services staff are now on or have been offered the option to transfer to NHS terms and conditions.
“The majority of these staff have been on NHS terms and conditions for nearly a year. This has been a complex process because staff had a number of different contractual arrangements which were protected by law on transfer.”
UVW general secretary Elia says the experience of being left in the hands of third-party private outsourcers often leaves union members feeling “second class”.
He added: “They feel excluded, they feel isolated, they feel unappreciated, undervalued, unseen. And that's not paranoia that's… reality.
“This claim… is about redistribution of wealth, and integration and equality… I think the government wants to defend outsourcing because it provides savings to public institutions, but it comes at the expense of inequality and injustice. And that's not justified.”
*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identities
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