HOSPITAL CLEANERS tore into health minister Lord Warner, at a conference organised by their Unison union in London last week.
The lively 150-strong conference, held against the backdrop of growing fears over the spread of the MRSA superbug, brought cleaners together nationally for the first time to call for more cleaning staff, better equipment, an end to privatisation and inclusion of contracted out staff in the NHS pay system.
Cleaner numbers in NHS hospitals have been halved over the past 20 years, with private firms axing jobs to win NHS contracts more cheaply. The government wants to cover up the scandal of dirty hospitals. But Lord Warner was heckled and shouted down by furious cleaners when he tried to defend the rigged system of inspections that sees managers notified of spot-checks in advance.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis described how hospital managers were “warned a week beforehand — so they get people from other wards to do the work”, while the rest of the hospital remained dirty. He called for unannounced inspections.
Lord Warner responded, “It’s one thing to say you want unannounced inspections, but do you really want people turning up out of the blue?”
The cleaners shouted, “Yes.”
John Lister, author of a Unison report, Cleaners’ Voices, made up of interviews with hospital cleaning staff around the country, criticised the government and Tony Blair, who have claimed that there are “good and bad” cleaners in the NHS.
“Never tell cleaning staff to clean better if you’re not prepared to put the money in the budget to enable them to do it,” he said.
Mary Fitzpatrick, a cleaner from Barnsley Hospitals Unison branch, explained how stretched cleaning staff are there. “We’re on £5 an hour, but it took a dispute to win that. It’s hard work for low pay. We were contracted out 12 years ago and have had three different contractors. Now there are 50 percent less staff than 12 years ago. In my area there used to be nine cleaners on the night shift — now there are four for the same job.”
Her colleague, Marina Bray, added, “On a ward there used to be one ward waitress and three domestics.
“Now there’s one person that does it all, the catering and the cleaning, for 28 patients.”
A campaign on the Wirral, Merseyside, has forced the local health trust to postpone the closure of two wards at Victoria Central Hospital. Local activists, the T&G union and the trades council, collected 18,000 signatures against the closure and held a lobby of the trust’s meeting on Thursday of last week.
A spokesperson for the trust was forced to admit that around two-thirds of local people opposed the closure and that the decision would be put on hold, at least until June this year. Another lobby has been called for 24 February.