'WE HAVE kept silent for so long, but it doesn't mean we don't have anything to say. This is the right time to fight the battle.' That is how Rosa, a domestic worker at Homerton Hospital in east London, expressed the determination of low paid health workers at three NHS trusts to strike to win a living wage.
Rosa was speaking at a rally on Monday of this week, organised by her Unison union along with The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO). Cleaners, porters, catering staff and other low paid hospital workers along with local community activists gathered at the rally.
The workers will be silent no longer about the pitifully low wages and unjust treatment they receive from their bosses, private contractors Medirest and ISS Mediclean. These firms make their profits - ISS Mediclean made £5 million last year - off the backs of workers who barely earn enough to live on.
The average wage of those working for NHS private firms in east London, with its sky-high housing and living costs, is just £7,000 a year. Workers say the privateers treat them with contempt. As Clementina Wilson put it, 'We work hard for them, and they treat us like we're pigs.'
The workers are set to begin an official Unison ballot for strike action next week to demand their private bosses pay NHS rates, plus sick pay and pension rights.
Clementina Wilson told the rally, 'If we don't fight we don't get anywhere. If we get together we can fight together. We need more money. I get £4.42 an hour. What can that do in London? I say give us £5.50 an hour. We'll take that...' After a pause she added to cheering, '...for the moment!'
Daniel works for Medirest at Mile End Hospital. He said, 'We are the hard working people in the health service who are being discriminated against. 'Instead of reward we get coercion, punishment and sanctions. Most of us are black workers and we find ourselves left on the shelf.'
Len Hockey, a porter and Unison joint branch secretary at Whipps Cross hospital said, 'This campaign has huge significance for the development of trade unionism among the most exploited and low paid in the NHS.
'We had 67 members of Unison when we launched this campaign in July. Now we're up to 240.' Unison general secretary Dave Prentis addressed the rally and offered the union's full backing to the dispute. He blamed the government as well as the private contractors.
He said, 'Our fight is with the government. This is a Tory policy adopted by a Labour government. The government talks about alleviating poverty but condones the low rates of pay these private companies are bringing in. 'We hear time and time again how our prime minister is standing shoulder to shoulder with the American president George Bush, who I don't agree with. Well this union will stand shoulder to shoulder with you.'
The meeting was rounded off with cheers when a porter got up to say, 'This government is at war. 'It is spending something like £2.9 billion for the war. Our taxes will go up to pay for it. Yet they can't find enough money for basic things like wheelchairs. 'This is the time to go to the government. This is the time to strike and to hold this government to ransom.'
Health Worker, the rank and file paper, has a special issue dedicated to the campaign against New Labour's Agenda for Change NHS modernisation plans.
To order copies of Health Worker phone 07970 788 873 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org