This October the trade union that I co-founded and work for as an organiser, United Voices of the World (UVW), will coordinate multiple strikes across London. These strikes will see our members, the majority of whom are migrants working in the low paid economy, face off against several major employers and their prestigious clients; with the Ministry of Justice, St. George’s University, the University of Greenwich, the University of East London, the Royal Parks, ITV and Channel 4 all set to be affected.
The biggest of these strikes will take place at St. Mary’s Hospital with a first round of strikes beginning on the 28th of October and going well into December, with 15 strike days planned over that period. The West London hospital, owned and run by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, will see well over 170 cleaners and porters outsourced to French multinational Sodexo demand equality in pay and working conditions with NHS staff.
Sodexo has held a facilities services contract with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust since 2014. In that time our members have reported experiencing a catalogue of abuses; they have shown us dirty, mice ridden and mixed sex changing rooms located in the basement of the hospital that they are expected to change in; they have reported being barred from eating in NHS staff canteens or resting in NHS staff rooms; they have reported paying out of their own pocket to get to work on public holidays such as Christmas and Sodexo refusing to cover the costs.
Our members take pride in their work; they work hard to keep wards safe and infection free. But for years they have been hampered in doing so and have had to pester Sodexo to provide them with spare uniforms so that they can turn up to work in clean attire and without the fear that they themselves could be spreading infection.
Our members have repeatedly had to ask, both for their own safety and for patient safety, that they be vaccinated by Sodexo – which is incidentally a legal obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974; Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1992 and the Health and Social Care 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations - something which Sodexo initially failed to do.
Our members are not asking for the world, they are merely asking that they be able to work in safe environment, both for themselves and for patients. But even the terms under which they are employed pose a danger; our members do not receive occupational sick pay like NHS employees, but are pushed into the inadequate system of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). This means if they are ill they cannot afford to take the day off because if they miss a days’ work, they miss a days’ pay. As a result, many of our members report having been forced to work whilst being ill with the flu and other contagious illnesses.
This is why our members are demanding equality and to be employed under equivalent terms as those found in the NHS’s Agenda for Change framework. And as part of that demand our members are also asking for an end to the poverty wages that they are paid. Our members currently receive £6.16 - £8.21 per hour which leaves them £6K - £10K worse off per year than their NHS colleagues of a similar grade.
Since our strike ballot was returned with a vote 99% in favour of action, we have secured some partial victories. Sodexo has now agreed to provide our members with multiple spare uniforms. We have also been informed that where holidays exceeding two weeks were immediately rejected that they are now being considered. Likewise, Sodexo has now agreed to immunise its workers and has offered our members a wage increase. However, serious problems remain.
For a start Sodexo has refused to be proactive in vaccinating its employees. It expects our members to know what they should and should not be vaccinated against and has refused to draw up a vaccination plan that would cover all of its workers. Instead it has placed the burden upon its employees.
And what is more the wage increase that Sodexo has offered – an increase to the London Living Wage – is still below the AfC rate for London based NHS workers and even if accepted by our members would still not be implemented until April of next year, meaning that our members are expected to continue living off poverty wages for several more months.
As a campaigning trade union with anti-racism at our core, we cannot stand by and allow the National Health Service to be complicit with Sodexo in exploiting migrant workers. The outsourcing model – both within our public services and without – needs to be challenged head on; and it is lamentable that the one institution in this country which is meant above all else to founded upon the principle of equality, has fallen so far in propping up what is at its core a racist and predatory industry.
We know that when workers organise they can not only get better pay and working conditions, but beat the outsourcing model. We did this in 2016 when we became the first trade union to force a UK university, the London School of Economics, to bring its outsourced cleaners in house. And this October we hope to do the same; outsourcing whether it be in our universities or our hospitals must come to an end. If you would like to support our members in their strike action you can donate to their strike fund here.