Socialist Worker

The corporate greed behind the superbugs

by Judy Cox
Issue No. 1913

PILES OF rubbish, blood and vomit left on floors, filthy wards—that is the legacy of privatisation in Britain’s hospitals.

And it is creating a breeding ground for the MRSA superbug that killed thousands of hospital patients last year.

Health workers at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, say that privatisation lies behind the 22 MRSA deaths at the hospital last year—the highest number in the country.

MRSA has complex causes, but cleanliness is one factor.

The workers called in their union, the GMB, to produce a “dirty dossier” of conditions at Derriford.

Hospital workers cannot speak freely about MRSA. They fear victimisation.

But one nurse spoke anonymously to Socialist Worker: “The ISS Mediclean company took over ten years ago, and standards of cleaning have gone right down.

“It is not the fault of the staff on the wards—it is the management.

“My ward has 30 beds. We used to have three cleaners who knew they were part of the team. Now there is just one domestic, and it can be a different person from one day to the next.

“The domestics just don’t have time to do what is needed. They get sent off to other places before they have finished.

“I have sympathy for the domestics. Their working lives are terrible. They work their fingers to the bone.

“I have a gut instinct that the privatisation of cleaning is a major contributing factor to the rise in MRSA. The relatives of those who have died will never know whether their loved ones could have been saved.

“We are always being told by the government that MRSA is doctors’ and nurses’ fault.

“But death rates have gone up, cleaning standards have gone down, and doctors and nurses haven’t changed. So draw your own conclusions.

“All we want is the best for our patients—a safe, clean environment.

“Privatisation is at the heart of the MRSA issue. And so is the general lack of funding in the NHS.

“The government says there is extra money for health, but I haven’t seen any of it.”

Gary Smith is an organiser for the GMB union, the biggest union among workers at the hospital. He has been central to the campaign.

He told Socialist Worker, “When I went in to do the report, I found filthy corridors, rubbish left lying around and dried blood products on the floor of the isolation ward.

“MRSA has complex causes, but clearly poor cleanliness increases the risk of infection.

“For the last 12 months we have been campaigning over the levels of cleanliness in the hospital and the shortage of housekeeping staff.

“ISS Mediclean is responsible for the cleaning and housekeeping duties. Since they took over, the number of domestic staff has been slashed.

“In the past, larger wards would have had up to three people responsible for housekeeping duties. This has now been reduced to one.

“Housekeepers, who are predominantly women, are put under incredible pressure. Last year a woman fainted in the very hot kitchen area next to the wards.

“She couldn’t take the stress, the heat and the overwork.

“The contract with ISS Mediclean doesn’t specify a minimum number of domestics to be employed.

“If a ward is not happy with the standard of cleaning they can buy in extra cleaning from ISS, effectively paying twice for the same service.

“We have had a big campaign over pay because a lot of the women don’t earn much more than the minimum wage.

“We held mass meetings and threatened industrial action, and we won some gains over holiday entitlement and basic pay.

“But labour is one of the company’s biggest costs. They want to cut labour to boost their profits.

“The people who work for ISS Mediclean are treated as second class citizens. But in the last year around 200 workers have joined the union.

“They are fed up with the partnership approach to management.They want a fightback.

“The union’s job is to give them the confidence and show them that they have got the economic power to make a real difference.”

Jim Honeywill’s father contracted MRSA at the Derriford hospital. He says, “I think the hospital was just filthy.

“I was visiting my 73 year old father for months and I never saw the windows being cleaned.

“Staff seemed rushed off their feet, with no time to clean anything.

“It seems to me that Derriford is panic-stricken about trying to keep its star status and is taking short cuts.”

Stephanie Whitehouse is the widow of an MRSA victim at Derriford. She says, “Something has got to be done, and it has to be done quickly.

“Close the whole damn hospital and clean up their act. The whole hospital wants fumigating from the outside all the way through.

“No one should be dying from MRSA. These infections are preventable.

“I watched my husband battle with this illness and die from it. No one else should go through that.”


‘It all comes down to privatisation’

BIRMINGHAM Heartlands Hospital has the second highest rate of deaths from the MRSA infection.

Its cleaning services have also been privatised and are now run by Initial Hospital Services.

A nurse at the hospital told Socialist Worker, “They said privatisation would make things work better, but it’s much, much worse.

“Morale is really low because people just can’t do their jobs properly. Chasing waiting list targets means overcrowding, and that means more infections.

“It all comes down to privatisation, cuts, and the wrong people making the decisions.”

A nurse who recently finished working at the hospital told Socialist Worker, “The place is filthy, really disgusting.

“The number of cleaners has gone right down.

“MRSA isn’t caused by one thing. The over-prescribing of antibiotics is one factor.

“Another is the awful state of hospital food, which means people come into hospital OK and end up with malnutrition.

“But the privatisation of services has got to be a part of it.

“Management have this scheme where nurses have to wear badges asking people to remind them to wash their hands. It’s degrading.

“The companies that run these services are just out for a profit, and that means cutting corners.”


The companies

ISS Mediclean

THE ISS group made profits of £200 million last year, while ISS Mediclean itself made £52 million.

ISS Mediclean runs the Hairmyres and Stonehouse Hospital in Scotland. Last year a report found that “staff shortages led to filthy wards and toilets. Water leaks from the roof and seeps up from the sewers. There are fears that 200,000 patient records have been lost.”

Its directors get wages 50 times higher than the company’s cleaners get. ISS employees earn an average of £10,437 a year.

ISS has repeatedly been hit by strike action. Strikes against ISS in Swansea, east London and Bolton, and the threat of strikes elsewhere, have been necessary to force the company to concede miserly £5 an hour pay deals.

Rentokil-Initial

BRANCHED OUT from pest control to be one of the world’s largest contracting companies for services like cleaning, catering, transport and security, with 930,000 employees.

Its Initial Hospital Services made profits of £408.5 million last year, but its workers earn an average of £6,673 a year.


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Article information

Features
Sat 7 Aug 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1913
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