£22,691 a year. Many workers in Britain dream of getting that amount. That was the amount of the pay rise awarded to Tony Blair's friend, the Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine, last week. Public outrage forced Irvine to put it on hold.
The scandal came just days after new figures revealed that two thirds of workers in Britain earn less than the official 'average' salary of £21,000. It came on the same day that hard-pressed teachers were offered an insulting 2.9 percent. Low paid civil servants were offered just 2.25 percent.
I MET six low paid workers at a small psychiatric hospital in London's East End. They were three cleaners, two catering workers and a porter. The hospital is run down, yet the Canary Wharf tower and its office blocks dominate the local skyline.
Just across the road from the hospital are trendy, plush Victorian terraces where houses can go for £500,000. Side by side with this immense wealth are run-down estates, and some of the highest levels of deprivation and poor health in Britain. The six workers reflect the local multiracial working class.
All of them work long hours, yet receive a pittance for keeping the NHS running. They are employed by private firm Medirest, which is part of the giant Compass group. Compass has around 200 contracts in hospitals and schools around Britain and is bidding for more of the government's PFI privatisation schemes.
The firm's top two executive directors get around £500,000 a year each, plus over £300,000 a year in bonuses and benefits. The average executive director earns over 77 times what companies on average pay their workers.
Medirest is typical of the private firms who are taking over running hospital services, like cleaning, catering and portering, all over Britain. None of the workers I met will give their names as they are terrified of getting the sack or being disciplined if they speak out.
Along with workers in four other East End hospitals, the workers have recently voted overwhelmingly for their Unison public sector union to ballot for strike action to win NHS pay and conditions for all. Each worker has a tale of hard work, staff shortages and the daily grind to survive.
All spit contempt when they talk about their bullying management and its petty rules. The hospital has up to 180 patients, mainly from the poorest areas in the borough.
One of the catering workers tells me, 'I've worked here 13 years and some of the patients I've known since I started. The only reason I work so hard and do extra hours is because I care about the patients.'
The catering worker tells me that workers have been battling for over five years, ever since the ancillary services were contracted out to private companies.
'We've had to fight for everything. They came in, but they didn't have a clue how a hospital was run. They are only interested in cutting corners and making money.'
'Every day is a battle with the bosses,' comments one of the domestic workers. 'We all get different pay rates. I get £5 an hour. Other people doing exactly the same job get more and some people get much less. Worst of all is the way they treat us. It is like we are not human. I've just about had it with them. 'I don't want much, I just want the average. We try our best to offer patients decent care. But every day we have to argue with the management just to get our pay. There is no sick pay. I know one worker who had an eye operation and took time off. She got nothing. People are forced to come to work when they are ill because they can't afford not to. That is dangerous for them and the patients. You feel you're being used. We deserve respect, but we get blamed if the wards are dirty. It is the private firm's fault.'
Another domestic worker tells me she worked 120 hours overtime in December, but still hasn't received the pay for it. 'It's just not fair,' she says. 'I'm working hard, not seeing much of my children. They have even cut our tea breaks from 15 minutes to ten. We are breaking our backs doing the cleaning, yet don't even get enough time to make a cup of tea and drink it. It is a battle to get what is owed to you by rights.'
Workers left with no choice
ALL OF the workers are worried that Medirest's cutbacks, staff shortages and lack of proper training mean a worse service for patients. One of the catering workers says, 'You should see the state of our kitchen. We've no proper chip fryer. Only the top half of the oven is working as the other cooker is broken. We have to come in early at 6am to light the cooker because it takes 15 minutes. How are we supposed to cook proper meals for the patients?'
There are stories of untrained domestic workers coming into the kitchen to cook food for the patients, and of untrained porters being expected to deal with the violent incidents that regularly occur. The hospital has two porters working at any one time.
One stays in the 'porters' lodge' answering the phone, the other has to do every other job. A porter says, 'It's moving food trolleys, the rubbish, the mail, medicines, delivering milk, moving furniture. Management are always calling on you to move something more. We are at their beck and call. Sometimes there's no break.'
The workers tell the story of one porter whose foot was run over by a trolley at work one weekend. Because of staff shortages, there was no one to replace him. So he worked his shifts as he was worried about the patients.
Medirest managers returned on Monday, sent him home and told him off for working. When the worker, who has a wife and two children, got his pay packet at the end of the week they paid him just £30.
Overworked and underpaid
ONE OF the catering workers, a woman in her fifties, says, 'When I left work yesterday my back was killing me. I was so tired because we had just two people running the canteen. I've got a bad back and I'm not supposed to lift heavy things, but they left me with no choice.
Three times recently I've worked from half six in the morning to eight o'clock at night. I don't choose to. We don't have enough staff. This is a psychiatric hospital so we're not allowed to leave anyone working alone. You have to stay. I'm doing two jobs at once, and management are taking liberties.
I wouldn't mind if I got paid a decent amount. It makes me burst out laughing when they say the average wage is over £20,000 a year. I get just £9,000 a year, £4.77 an hour. I took home £150 last week. Out of that I paid £80 rent, £10 water rates, £10 gas, £10 electricity and £25 water rates.
That leaves £15 for food and everything else. I had to go and stay with my partner because I couldn't afford to live. The bosses here don't bloody care. We could just be cardboard cutouts as far as they are concerned. People don't realise what we work in, what we put up with, and how little money and respect we get. I'll be proud to be out fighting the bosses.'