Over 200 workers at Whipps Cross hospital, in east London, struck from Wednesday to Friday last week. They are demanding equal terms and conditions to colleagues directly employed by the NHS.
The porters, domestics and catering staff are employed by Rentokil Initial. They earn about £5.52 an hour. Three years ago the workers, members of the Unison union, won the principle of equal pay through strike action.
Now they feel forced to strike to turn that promise into reality. They have struck for five days since 21 July and, following last week’s three-day action, they are considering a five-day strike in the near future.
Picket lines have been well attended and workers feel that they have an active role to play in the dispute. By noon on Wednesday of last week there were 40 people on the picket line.
Cecilia is, like many of the workers, a black woman domestic. She told Socialist Worker, “I do cleaning, dusting, serving food, things like that. I’ve worked here for four years. When I started work we were employed by ISS Mediclean, now it’s Rentokil.
“We were promised that in 2006 we’d get sick pay, annual leave, and other terms and conditions like those employed by the NHS. We want the money that we are owed.
“After this strike, if we haven’t won, we are going out for a week.”
The hospital trust and the Rentokil bosses are feeling the pressure. Last week they made an offer to try to avert the strike.
The deal would have given the workers equal pay, but not resolved other outstanding demands, particular backdated payments of London weighting.
Bob, a hospital porter, said, “The trust has offered £500 of the weighting and £100 ‘goodwill’ payment.
“But they owe us £1,400 in backdated payments since April. So it was rejected.
“We’ve got staff here who’ve worked for the NHS for 25 years and whose jobs were then put out to contract.
“Now Agenda for Change - the terms and conditions deal across the health service - has come in, many people directly employed by the NHS have had pay increases and back pay worth thousands. We haven’t and that is two-tier working.”
In the 2004 Warwick Agreement, Labour ministers promised trade union leaders that they would eradicate two-tier working in the public sector. Whipps Cross is just one of many major NHS and council workplaces where privately contracted workers earn less than directly employed colleagues.
Often workers find that their employers try to pass the buck when challenged over two-tiering.
King Adomako, a Unison rep and domestic at the hospital, said, “The company keeps blaming the trust, the trust blames the company.
“But the trust brought in Rentokil - so they are responsible for resolving this.
“We are trying to prevent MRSA and other infections. But they bring in private companies to cut corners and make savings.”
On Thursday of last week, the trust told the union that it was going to the conciliation service Acas to try to resolve the dispute.
Len Hockey, the Unison joint branch secretary for the hospital, said, “If there are Acas meetings we’ll attend, but we will start from the position that the deal agreed three years ago should be implemented.”
Whipps Cross workers are starting to win solidarity from the wider union movement.
Representatives from Westminster, Lambeth, Barnet, Islington, Haringey, Camden, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Hammersmith and Hackney local government branches of Unison visited the strikers. They brought pledges of donations to the strike fund and workplace collections.
Rahul Patel, branch secretary of the Westminster branch, said, “This is a fight to defend the NHS, but it’s also about the two-tier workforce.
“A victory at Whipps Cross will spur people on across Britain. My branch represents privatised street cleaners, facility management workers and other staff working in central London paid a salary close to the minimum wage.
“Mary Pierre-Harvey, the chair of London Unison black members committee, was there, and she pointed out that lots of the striking workers were black women - like many low paid workers across London.
“This crucial fight needs as much publicity as possible.”
Send donations c/o Chris Remington, Unison London Region, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS. Cheques should be made payable to Unison and marked clearly as donations to the Whipps Cross dispute.