More than 200 outsourced health workers took to the picket lines in Bolton, Greater Manchester, on Thursday morning. It marked the beginning of a 48-hour walk out for equal pay by the Unison union members. They are fighting for the same pay, terms and conditions as those directly employed by the NHS.
The cleaners, porters and other support staff work for the Royal Bolton NHS Foundation Trust's “wholly-owned subsidiary” iFM. The firm is a privately-registered company that is owned by the trust.
There were many first-time strikers on the picket lines—including people who had signed up to the union to be part of the walkout. Striker Amy told Socialist Worker, “This is my first time out on strike and it feels really good.
“Everyone is out supporting one another, there’s such a good atmosphere.”
Bosses at iFM "are trying to rip people off left, right and centre,” Amy added.
“Everything is a big struggle at the moment after my bills went up in April. I live with my mum and I have still literally got 59p left in my bank account.”
The aim of setting up wholly-owned subsidiaries is to undermine workers’ wages and terms and conditions. Slashing the wage bill makes it more attractive for private companies to come in down the line.
David, a Unison member and porter, told Socialist Worker, “There is already a two-tier workforce”.
“We’re on £7.83 an hour national minimum wage and those on NHS terms and conditions are on £8.92 an hour,” he said.
Some workers used to work for the NHS and were outsourced to iFM on Agenda for Change pay and terms and conditions. Others used to work for private contractor ISS and were transferred over to iFM.
Bosses' attempts to divide workers along these lines have not worked and both groups of workers were united on the picket lines. As David explained, “There’s no guarantee that those on Agenda for Change will get the same pay next year.
“We’re all out together.”
Workers' anger has been fuelled by lies from iFM bosses that they would match NHS pay increases after they took over. Emily, a Unison member, told Socialist Worker, ”You’re told you’re part of the NHS and then this happens. There’s no respect for us.”
The fight at Bolton makes clear what wholly-owned subsidiaries are really about. “The trust could apply for funding from the Department of Health for the pay rises, but they would have to sign up to NHS terms and conditions for everyone," said David.
“They say their aim is to be a ‘real living wage employer’. And they say, ‘If you are Agenda for Change, then you might as well be in-house’. Well, that’s the point, we should be.”
Sam added, “They are a private company at the end of the day. And what’s a private company for? Making profit.”
Unison has announced a further 72-hour strike from 23 October and workers have shown that they are determined to fight. As Unison member Edmund told Socialist Worker, “I’m all for it, if they don’t back down we’ve got to do it.”
Every trade unionist should build solidarity for the Bolton workers’ fight. A win in Bolton would give workers equal pay. It would also boost the resistance to privatisation within the NHS.