Workers at Fazakerley Hospital, Liverpool, held a 48-hour strike last weekend to protest at pay inequality at the hospital.
Over 500 cleaning, laundry and catering workers, employed by private contractor Initial Hospital Services, receive a lower rate of pay than colleagues employed to do identical work by the NHS.
Privately contracted workers get just £4.85 an hour, while those directly employed by the NHS get the £6.06 rate agreed in the Agenda for Change agreement — a set of sweeping changes to health service pay and conditions.
Ending this practice, known as two-tier working, was one of the pledges union leaders claimed to have extracted from Labour in 2004.
On 18 March this year Tony Blair said, “Today we are implementing a key committment I gave at Warwick to extend the local government ‘two-tier code’ to the NHS, schools and other parts of the public sector.”
But Blair quickly added that equal pay for contracted and NHS staff applied only to new entrants.
Instead of abolishing two-tier, Blair has imposed a three- or four-tier system based on when you joined and who employs you.
Some 40 workers from the T&G, GMB and Unison unions attended the Fazakerley picket line on Monday of this week.
“We just want the same pay as other NHS workers,” said Matty, one of those on the picket line.
“We get no pension and little sick pay. We’re fed up of taking nonsense and we’re determined to win.
“I have to clean other people’s shit and my wages are equivalent to what I clear up — crap.”
Donna Bernard, a T&G union organiser, said, “Initial have offered the workers a pay increase of no more than £16 a year. This is an insult.”
Many of the pickets had stories of having worked for various private contractors and of having had no real pay rise for years. Conditions for the workers are also tough.
“You have to put your hand up to ask to go to the toilet, and can’t be out more than two minutes,” said one striking worker.
A Unison member broke off from arguing with delivery drivers not to cross picket lines and said, “I work up to 70 or 80 hours a week and I take home £620 a fortnight.
“If we had decent wages, we wouldn’t work all these hours. I’m tired, I don’t go out because I’m always too done in.
“It gets worse each time a new private company takes over.”
Matty said that health and safety standards for the workers are appalling. “Three syringes stuck in my fingers last week,” he said. “I kicked off a fuss about the MRSA ‘superbug’, but I was told to shut up. When it came up in the press, bosses said it was all news to them, and just to keep quiet.”
Some of the strikers have heard an Initial manager say all 25 striking supervisors will be sacked, “though now she denies she said it,” pickets said.
Another striker said, “Initial are known as one of the worst companies to work for.”
Discussion ensued about what further action was needed to win. One of the strikers, Gerry, summed up what many felt—“If we go all out, we could shut down the hospital. Without domestics this place can’t run.”
A mass meeting is planned to decide whether to escalate the action.
“We need a good show of hands for all-out action and we might just get it. Two or three day strikes aren’t enough,” a striking supervisor said.
The strike has won support from other hospital staff and the public.
Donna says that nursing staff visit the pickets during their breaks. “Support from the public is amazing,” she adds. “The police told us off for being rowdy, but we can’t stop people beeping their horns.”
As the strike went on, a carnival atmosphere developed on the picket line, with strikers blowing French-style horns.
Health workers plan to hold a lobby of parliament on 14 July to back the Fazakerly strikers and of the nearby Wirral Hospital, which faces ward closures.
Send messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org