Barts health workers’ strike is a fight for us all
This article is over 1 years, 10 months old
Overwork, poor conditions and poverty pay have pushed hundreds of workers at a group of hospitals in London to strike. Isabel Ringrose spoke to the cleaners, porters, security, catering and reception staff about a fight that has big implications for everyone that works in the NHS
Striking workers making noise on the picket lines. (Guy Smallman)
Workers at three London hospitals are fighting a vital battle for the whole of the NHS. The overwhelmingly black and migrant strikers are on a two-week strike against hated outsourcing giant Serco.
A victory for them could encourage outsourced workers everywhere and break the hold of private contractors—and the terrible conditions they are force on employees. As one worker put it, “We do a two‑person job for one person’s money.” They’ve had enough. And by taking action against their bosses, strikers know they have the power to win.
The Unite union workers employed by Serco at three Barts NHS Trust hospitals in east London are absolutely clear in what they want. They’re demanding a 15 percent pay rise and to be brought in-house under NHS employment where they’ll receive other benefits, such as proper holiday and sick pay.
Barbara is a domestic from the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. “We work too much, especially with overtime,” she told Socialist Worker.
“In the pandemic we worked really hard. Our colleagues had bonuses, but not us. We were told we weren’t part of the NHS. “It makes us feel bad. They don’t respect all the jobs we do in there.”
Barbara asked, “Why do NHS employed staff get more than us when we all do the same job? And Serco takes advantage of those who don’t understand as much. Serco has to go—no more outsourcing. We want to be part of the NHS.”
The mainly black and migrant workers took to the picket lines at Royal London Hospital, Whipps Cross and St Barts every day last week. They plan to continue this week as part of their two‑week battle.
“We’re happy and feel stronger together on the picket line,” Barbara added. “Now our managers have to do the job we do and see for themselves how it is.”
Strikers lit up the picket lines every morning. Music, dancing, drums and vuvuzelas kept the energy high. At the Royal London strikers chant, “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power”, as well as “What do we want? Pay rise”.
They also marched around the entire building making as much noise as possible to show they won’t be silenced. Strikers agree that their action is affecting Serco and Barts Trust. One striker said, “This is pinching them—they’re getting everything they deserve. Serco is using the people still in there as much as they can, but how long can they do that for? When the hospital gets dirty then they’ll realise they need us.”
Sylvia is a domestic from the Royal London. She said that other outsourced workers facing the same position as Barts workers should also take industrial action.
“We want to be equal and treated fairly,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Being on the picket line shows we want to be taken seriously. If we complained but carried on working, they wouldn’t listen. Now we’re acting, so they know it’s important. And workers have come together with the union. We’re out and they can see us.”
Nasty profiteer Serco offered its workers a 1 percent pay rise. Following a 97 percent vote in favour of strikes, it put 3 percent on the table. Workers—including cleaners, porters, security guards and caterers—said no.
For Helena, a cleaner from Whipps Cross, to work in the NHS would mean “normal payment”. “Serco pays less for everything,” she explained. “And with inflation at 7.5 percent, Serco offering a 3 percent pay rise is under inflation. If this doesn’t rise we’ll lose money. We need a pay rise at a minimum with inflation.”
Helena added, “We need more cleaners for this work. If we don’t have more then it’s harder for us. Some will stop work and go elsewhere. Then it becomes even harder.” Solidarity is also important to boost the strike. The Unison union in particular ought to show solidarity with the Unite strikers.
But Unison has done a deal and agreed to Serco’s 3 percent pay offer. Unite members are still appealing to their colleagues to “come out on strike with us” rather than work and assist the bosses.
It’s possible to fight then outsourcers. Barts workers took on Serco in July over rota issues. Also last July, Serco lost its contract for refuse services with Bexley council after workers struck against low pay and poor treatment. And the UVW union booted outsourcer Sodexo out of St Mary’s Hospital in west London in 2019.
So as initial talks with Barts Trust managers begin, confidence is high that Barts Trust workers can win a victory in their latest battle. But in 2017, the Barts strike against Serco over pay ended without the deal workers wanted. This time around, strikers must keep fighting until they win all their demands.
Serco’s contract finishes with the trust at the end of April 2023. Helena said that another company could take over or renew the contract—and that’s why striking is important. “I think the strike can win,” she added. “And if Barts and Serco don’t listen to the union we’ll continue. After two weeks we’ll do another two weeks, then a month and more.”
Names have been changed
Serco puts workers last
Bullying, harassment, understaffing, overwork—and all for little pay. That’s the daily reality for workers employed by Serco.
But for its bosses, it’s a different story. The top two executives grabbed combined pay of £7.4 million in 2020, including bonuses worth £5.5 million.
Chief executive Rupert Soames has raked in total earnings of £23.5 million since he took over in 2015. “I’m very well paid,” Soames gloated to the Guardian newspaper this year. “Of course I think about the pay differential (with the company’s lowest-paid staff), but I am made of flesh and blood.”
It’s hard to imagine Soames giving a second of his time to consider his underpaid and overworked staff unless their fightback hits his profits. He says delivering more for less is a positive for the market. The reality for workers is harder jobs for worse pay. The company forecasted £4.4 billion in revenue for 2021 and at least £225 million in profit.
It was handed £350 million for running a quarter of Covid test and trace services on behalf of the NHS. Some £37 billion was thrown at the Tories’ disastrous system. When Soames was asked whether the contact tracing worked, he said he believed “that it worked in between the times of the very greatest peaks”. A damning report by the Public Accounts Committee last March found the system had “failed to prove its effectiveness” despite “unimaginable” costs to the public.
The only winners were fat cats such as Soames. Last June Serco was handed another £322 million contract to keep test centres running in England and Northern Ireland for an additional 12 months.
But grabbing public money through the NHS and underpaying its staff isn’t the only way Serco makes its fortune. It runs prisons for the Ministry of Justice, deports refugees and houses them in unsuitable and miserable conditions. Now it has a new contract with the Department for Work and Pensions.
The Home Office gave Serco £200 million to run Brooke House and Tinsey House near London Gatwick Airport in 2020. This was despite the company being surrounded by allegations of abuse, including sexual harassment, at immigration detention centre Yarl’s Wood.
It has also been accused of paying staff through “mini-umbrella companies” to avoid tax. But workers have been fighting back. Strikes by RMT union members on the Caledonian sleeper train, GMB bin strikers in Sandwell and Unite members in Bexley have battled the multinational company over pay and conditions.
Migrants give us strength
The Barts strike is a key battle to defend the NHS against upcoming privatisation. It also shows the power migrant workers have and that fighting for equality is the job of every worker.
Strikes by Sage care home workers, Great Ormond Street Hospital security guards and cleaners at the Royal Parks and Facebook show the fightback migrant workers can bring.
Any activist or trade unionist that cares about protecting the NHS and other public services has to back the Barts strike. So should anti-racists.
Migrant workers in Britain strengthen the working class. Fights for better pay and conditions are a benefit to all workers. This helps to cut across racist divides between workers and can lead to wider battles against the system.
Right wingers proclaim that migrants drive down conditions and pay, and are the enemy of “British people”.
The real enemy of workers—regardless of nationality—are bosses and rulers.
Serco was handed £600 million to run non-clinical facilities at hospitals run by Barts Health NHS trust in 2017, hoovering up public money to go straight into the pockets of bosses.
It wrecks public services that have been decimated by cuts Without migrant workers there would be no NHS. We’re also told that migrants and refugees are here to snatch our jobs and benefits.
But many refugees trapped in the asylum system live on around £5 a day and are not allowed to work. When they do, they can be exploited under terrible circumstances, such as fruit pickers or garment workers made to work long hours for barely any pay.
Tight immigration controls make migrant workers more susceptible to exploitation. They can be left vulnerable without access to healthcare or adequate housing. This is not to the benefit of other workers.
Rather than obsessing over migrants “stealing jobs” that the right and bosses want people to focus on, unity should be built. In workplaces, whether in the NHS or factories, bosses use racism to divide workers and weaken the collective power they have. They do this to cut wages and worsen conditions, while workers blame each other for falling conditions.
But what overcomes this is unity in action. This shows that British-born workers have more in common with migrant workers, or workers on the other side of the world than bosses in charge of criminal companies like Serco. Privatisation and racism are class issues. That’s why the Barts strike is important, and why it needs to win.
How you can support the strikers
Join the picket lines outside from Monday to Saturday, from 5.30am to 11am. They’re held at The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel Road, London E1 1FR, Whipps Cross hospital, Whipps Cross Road, London E11 1NR and St Barts hospital, Little Britain, Smithfield, London EC1A 7BE.
Get your union branch to donate to the strike fund. Name: Unity Trust, A/C number: 20344885, sort code: 60-83-01, Reference, Barts Strike.
Cheques made payable to: Barts Health NHS LE/7384L to Len Hockey, 242 Willingale Road, Loughton IG10 2BX.