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Fed up and fighting back – the health workers defying multinational Serco

This article is over 6 years, 11 months old
Low-paid and migrant workers are at the sharp end of cuts and privatisation in the NHS. They face rocketing workloads and bullying bosses. But across north east London 1,000 porters, domestics and cleaners are taking on a multinational to demand higher pay—and showing how to fight, reports Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2562
Cleaners on the picket line at Barts hospital in London last week
Cleaners on the picket line at Barts hospital in London last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)

When Serco grabbed a new hospital cleaning contract in April, it didn’t reckon it would be facing a series of strikes just three months later.

The multinational giant runs facilities services, such as cleaning, kitchens and security, at Barts Health NHS Trust covering north east London.

But its low-paid, largely migrant workforce began a week-long walkout across four hospitals on Tuesday of this week. It follows a three-day walkout last week.

Their fight shines a light on how the Tories are breaking up and privatising our NHS for the profit of a few large multinationals.

Marjorie works as a domestic worker at the Royal London Hospital in Tower Hamlets. “They are making money off us, off our suffering,” she told Socialist Worker. “They don’t treat us with any respect—we’re not people to them.

“We’re the ones that clean the shit and they treat us like shit—we deserve to be paid properly.”

Geraldine, another domestic worker, agreed. “If you speak up they just say, ‘We’ll sack you’. How’s that showing us any respect?

“You have no right to say anything to the management, they want us to be scared.”

The Unite union members are fighting for a pay rise of 30p an hour, but their grievances go much deeper. Since Serco took over from another profiteer, Carillion, things have got worse.

Striking cleaners on the march last week

Striking cleaners on the march last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)

A big part of this is making workers do jobs that were previously done by other health workers who are on a higher pay band.

Marjorie explained, “Jobs such as cleaning the medical equipment used to be done by health care assistants.

“Now when they’re finished they just go home, but we’re expected to stay and carry on with everything. They’ve just added more jobs for us.”

Ava described what an average day could look like for one of the domestic workers with their increased workload.

“Some wards have 25 patients on them and one person is responsible for all of them,” she told Socialist Worker. “You have to serve every one of the patients the main course, the afters, do the washing and then clean the kitchen.

“You don’t have time for a break—and when you go home you’re really tired and can’t really do anything.”

Jacob added, “They say we’ve got three to four hours to do something and during that time we’ve got a full schedule.

“There are green signs up with lists of what the Trust has to do and what Serco has to do. If you asked any independent cleaning auditor, they’d tell you that the list of our tasks is just too much.

“Some wards have 44 patients on them—22 each side—and you have to clean from the ceiling to the floor.”

Strikers explained how there are fewer workers but no fewer tasks to complete.

As Jeremy, another domestic, told Socialist Worker, “One person now has the same workload as four people used to have before.


“That’s because we have to do the domestic jobs, and jobs nurses used to do. The workload is just too much for us. Everything is for the domestics, every day there is something more—we’re the last people that they care about.”

There was a confident mood on the cleaners strike last week

There was a confident mood on the cleaners’ strike last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)

“It takes happiness to do a job,” he added. “If you’re not happy you might come into work, but you’re not going to do it the same.”

Many workers haven’t raised these concerns with management because they are intimidated. Jacob said, “If you don’t complete all the tasks that you’re supposed to, you have to fill in a form saying you didn’t have enough time.

“But who’s going to fill out a form to management saying they didn’t have enough time? People are worried about what they’d say—people are worried that they’d get sacked if they did that.”

Workers have also said this new regime under Serco will have an impact on patients.

As Jeremy said, “They’ve taken kitchen staff to help the cleaners—we now have to empty the bins, wipe things down and change the towels and soap.

“But this means the staff now go straight from the kitchen to the patients.”

For Jacob this has raised worries about “cross contamination”.

“People have to wash their hands between doing things so they don’t spread germs,” he said. “But when you’re pushed to do more jobs you’ve less time to do this—and you could have serious problems with cross contamination.”

It’s not just the increasing workload that could put patients’ health at risk.

Domestics and cleaners on the picket line again and again said that they don’t have the right equipment to do their jobs.

Alex, one of cleaners, said, “We never have the right equipment that we need to do the cleaning.

“To clean the floors properly and make them clean for the staff and patients we need the right detergent.

“When we go to the office and tell them we don’t have it they tell us we just don’t have the supplies. They tell us to clean the floors with water.”

Striking cleaners taking on Serco

Striking cleaners taking on Serco (Pic: Guy Smallman)

If workers don’t do management’s bidding, they’re met with a whole load of punishments—many of them petty.

David said, “If you were just one minute late they would take half an hour’s worth of pay off you.”

Whatever made workers’ jobs more bearable, Serco have sought to take away.


As Olive, a domestic at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, told Socialist Worker, “We used to have five sets of uniforms, but now we only have two.

“It’s awful having just two pairs—especially in the hot weather when it sweats through.”

Not content with breathing down workers’ necks, bosses also want to regulate their free time.

Geraldine said, “If you’re sick, have to go to the doctor or have anything on during the day then you cannot go to it. My daughter has got her graduation coming up and they wouldn’t allow me to go.”

Workers were particularly furious that bosses had denied them holidays during the summer. Ava said, “They always tell us when we can and cannot have time off, but now they have rejected our holidays for July and August.”

Anger has been building among the workers. As Jeremy said, “Hundreds of people are feeling the same.”

But this issue of free time has brought workers’ anger against all these issues to the fore. It is causing a major headache for bosses—and has spurred the latest round of strikes.

When Serco took over the contract in April, they tried to snatch workers’ tea breaks away from them.

Aurelia said, “When Serco came in they said they weren’t going to change anything, but they changed everything. All of a sudden they took away our breaks.”

But no sooner had they done that, workers on the fifth floor of the Royal London Hospital walked out unofficially. That action was successful—and has given workers confidence to take the fight to the bosses.

Peter Kavanagh, Unite’s London and South Eastern regional secretary, spoke to a rally outside the Royal London Hospital. “We’ve gained 600 new members, 28 new elected shop stewards and the confidence to take on the employer,” he said.

Cleaners on the picket line last week

Cleaners on the picket line last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The workers are based across four sites covering north east London and come from all parts of the world from Africa to eastern Europe.

Their union Unite has a high level of organisation, meaning it was able to organise a successful ballot for industrial action.

As Kevin explained, “There’s a lot of different shifts, but we’ve got reps on all floors who let everyone know what was going to happen.”

The workers voted by 99 percent for strikes on a 52 percent turnout, showing that it’s possible to organise action under the Tories’ repressive Trade Union Act.

Throughout the ballot some union members were given a list of people to contact about who’d had the ballot paper and who had sent it back.

Bosses have tried to intimidate workers from going on strike. David said, “One of the supervisors said to one of my colleagues that you’ll be sacked if go on strike.”

But workers are determined to resist the bosses’ attacks.

These workers have also trashed the lie pushed by politicians and some union leaders, including Unite’s Len McCluskey, that migrant workers undercut wages.

It is the profiteering bosses, such as Serco, and racism that are responsible for lower wages.

These migrant workers are fighting to push wages up.

Every trade unionist should support their fight. At the rally Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, Unite’s head of health, said, “If we can destroy the pay cap here, we can destroy it all over the NHS.

“I am determined that we are going to make you an example for all NHS workers that they can win. We are going to tell them all—we are going to win and that pay cap is going to roll off.”

The whole trade union movement must throw its weight behind them.

A win will strengthen the fight for higher pay, undercut the racist myths around immigration and boost the struggle against the assault on the NHS.

Some names have been changed

What you can do for the strike

  • Send messages of support to their facebook page at
  • Join their picket lines outside Mile End Hospital, Royal London Hospital, St Barts Hospital and Whipps Cross Hospitals from 5am

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