Around 130 cleaners, porters and other support staff at St Mary’s Hospital plan a week-long walkout from Monday of next week.
They’ve already staged 10 days of strikes last month to demand the same pay and terms and conditions as workers directly employed by the NHS.
And if bosses don’t back down, in January they could make history with the biggest ever indefinite walkout by outsourced health workers.
On strike days the UVW union holds mass picket lines or protests to pile pressure on the bosses.
Muhammad, a UVW member and medical records delivery driver, said workers felt good to be out on the picket line. “I’m fighting to be treated like a human being,” he told Socialist Worker.
“I’m fighting so I can live a life outside of work—and it’s worth it to stand up to bullies.”
Strikers want Sodexo to give them NHS Agenda for Change pay and terms and conditions. They are currently out of pocket by up to £10,000 a year compared to those doing similar jobs working directly for the NHS.
A series of strikes by outsourced workers have forced bosses at other hospitals to pay them NHS rates.
They include walkouts at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, the Royal Bolton Infirmary and Doncaster and Bassetlaw in the last year.
Some of them were employed by multinationals, other by “wholly-owned subsidiaries”—private companies owned by hospitals.
And in Bradford and Wigan and Leigh, strikes forces bosses to drop plans to outsource their jobs in the first place.
Strikers at St Mary’s could score one of the biggest victories yet and force bosses to take them back in house.
Petros, a UVW organiser, told Socialist Worker, “Bosses have agreed to enter talks about bringing workers in house by April, but they need to deliver.
“They can’t just come back in April and say it’s not happening. Staff will stay out until we’re certain that they’ll be employed by the NHS. It’s definitely a step forward from where we were when we started.”
Imperial College Healthcare, the trust responsible for St Mary’s Hospital, said that it will be replacing Sodexo with a new subcontractor in April.
But outsourcing to another company won’t end the terrible conditions that people have to work in.
The only way for health workers to have equal rights is to end privatisation.
The St Mary’s struggle shows there’s a mood to fight over pay and privatisation in the NHS and should inspire others.
Some of Sodexo’s top bosses earn £160,000 a year—which makes their failure to pay up even more insulting.
Some of the Sodexo workers only get the minimum wage of £8.21 an hour and those under 25 get even less on the youth rate.
One striker told Socialist Worker, “I can barely afford to eat and pay rent.
“Sometimes it’s a choice between the two.”
Iesha, who has worked as a cleaner for two years, explained that workers miss out on many other workplace rights. “We only get sick pay for two days so we just can’t afford to get ill,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Some of the newer employees don’t get sick pay at all.
“We don’t get any respect. Management keep moving us around and being rude to us.
Another worker added that they feel like they have “no dignity”.
“I have one uniform that I wear every day,” she told Socialist Worker. “We have asked for more, but management keep ignoring us.”
If health workers only have one uniform, they have to wash and dry it every night after work.
Sodexco can try to plead poverty, but action has shown that they have the money to up.
A strike in Doncaster and Bassetlaw hospitals in April forced bosses to give NHS rates of pay. More action can do the same at St Mary’s Hospital.
The strikes at St Mary’s Hospital are a powerful antidote to the racist myth that migrants undercut wages and terms and conditions.
The workers are from all over the world, including Philippines, Lithuania, Portugal, Sierra Leone and Brazil.
Immigration doesn’t lower wages.
The bosses are always to blame for low pay. But by fighting back together workers can drive up wages by forcing bosses to cough up.
The St Mary’s strikers are not the only group of migrants who have fought for higher pay.
Cleaners and other support staff at the Ministry of Justice are in dispute for equal terms with civil servants.
And staff at the University of Greenwich and the University of East London are fighting for better terms.
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