By Nick Clark
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Serco – the world is not enough

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Issue 2564
Cleaners employed by Serco at Barts NHS Trust strike for decent pay
Cleaners employed by Serco at Barts NHS Trust strike for decent pay (Pic: Guy Smallman)

A gigantic octopus that straddles the globe has wrapped its tentacle around the NHS. Its grip grows tighter and tighter.

The octopus is Serco. It’s a multinational outsourcing giant with an insatiable appetite for taking over public services in countries spanning the Middle East, North America, Asia and Europe.

Its latest figures show annual revenue of £3 billion and trading profit of over £100 million.

And for years it has been prising its way into the NHS.

In east London, Serco has recently been handed £600 million to run non-clinical facilities at hospitals run by Barts Health NHS trust.

Royal London Hospital in east London, where Serco has a contract to provide cleaning services

Royal London Hospital in east London, where Serco has a contract to provide cleaning services (Pic: Matt Brown/Flickr)

But when Serco moved in back in April, cleaners, porters and domestics almost immediately walked out against their new boss.

They’re still fighting, with a two-week strike beginning on Tuesday of this week.

It’s not hard to see why.

Serco is what’s euphemistically known as a “public service company”. That means its business is in taking over public services and running them for its own profit.

Serco thrives on austerity and government cost cutting.


Serco says, “Our market is large, we believe growing, and will continue to do so because of forces we have identified which mean governments will continue to face huge pressure to deliver more and better public services, for less.”

Whatever scandals there are around outsourcing, such firms meet governments’ desire to ram the profit motive into every aspect of public services.

Serco has its fingers in the transport industry pie as well

Serco has its fingers in the transport industry pie as well (Pic: mattbuck/Wikicommons)

And like all outsourcers, Serco’s profits depend on the extent to which it can drive down standards, wages, and conditions.

That’s bad news for everybody who uses or works for the NHS.

One of Serco’s first forays into the NHS came when it took over Cornwall’s out of hours GP service in 2006.

The strike there should be a beacon for everyone who wants to drive profit and privatisation out of the NHS.

Serco was found providing false statistics to the NHS that made its response times in Cornwall appear faster than they actually were.

In fact the situation was, in the words of the British Medical Association, “disgraceful”.

Whistleblowers flagged up unsafe staffing levels and a “bullying culture” aimed at keeping it all under wraps.

They claimed Serco allowed queues of up to 90 people to build up on its out of hours helpline. Doctors were repeatedly pulled off their duties to operate helplines instead.

On one occasion just one doctor was said to have been left to cover the whole of Cornwall.

A government investigation found the whistleblowers’ claims were “substantially true”.


Serco’s response to the claims involved searching staff lockers to find out who the whistleblowers were.

The scale of the scandal forced Serco to abandon its Cornwall contract early. That didn’t stop it brazenly claiming to have left Cornwall’s out of hour GP service in an “excellent condition”.

As it happens, that’s almost exactly how Serco described the community health services in Suffolk, which it also gave up running in 2015.

In 2012—the same year that the scandal broke in Cornwall—Serco was given a £140 million contract to run the service.

Right away it began a “reorganisation” that cut one in seven of the hundreds of NHS jobs transferred over. New starters were recruited on much worse terms and conditions.

The cuts left workers struggling to cope. One carer at the time told the Guardian newspaper, “In my team alone we’re 50 percent down on staffing hours compared with last year.

“We’ve still got the same number of patients—so the workload has massively increased.”

Within a year Serco was failing to meet important targets and was threatened with fines.

By 2014 Serco was coming under fire from Suffolk County Council. Even Tory councillors demanded to know what it was doing to improve.

Strangely enough Serco decided not to renew the contract when it ran out the following year.

Now Serco’s back, this time in east London. And it’s up to its same old tricks—cutting costs and driving down conditions.

No sooner had Serco taken over at Barts Health trust than cleaners were told they were no longer allowed to take a morning tea break.

Not only that, but the private company wants to force a ten year pay freeze on all the workers it now employs at Barts.

And to top it all off, strikers have spoken of the increased workloads, falling standards and poor equipment they’ve had to put up with since Serco came in. That means that life is harder for these low paid workers but it also means the hospitals are a less safe place for patients to be.

The strike there should be a beacon for everyone who wants to drive profit and privatisation out of the NHS.

A view to make a killing

You can’t escape Serco—it’s everywhere. Aside from hospitals and health services, Serco’s empire covers trains, ferries, leisure centres, speed cameras and air-traffic control—and that’s just in Britain.

Serco operates the North Link ferries in Scotland, the Caledonian sleeper train, and Merseyrail trains where its attempts to force driver-only operation has led to strikes.

Serco even runs the hire bikes in central London. But wherever you see a Serco logo, you’re also likely to see signs of trouble.

Last year Serco was fined more than £1 million and had to apologise after a litany of blunders saw schools resources in Lincolnshire taken away and workers going unpaid.

Serco took £70 million to run Human Resources and finance at Lincolnshire County Council, starting from 2015.

But after Serco failed to pay the bills on time, one primary school had its phone lines cut off, while at others sanitary facilities and waste equipment were repossessed.

On Her Majesty’s Prison service

Serco makes a killing out of locking people up. Two of its biggest operations in Britain are running private prisons and deporting migrants, including the Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

In 2013 the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) began investigating Serco’s government contract for fitting electronic tags and monitoring prisoners released on probation.

Serco was alleged to have charged the government for prisoners who were either dead, back in prison, or abroad.

Serco paid back £68.5 million to the government over the scandal. Despite launching its investigation almost four years ago, the SFO has still not reported its findings.

The real scandal is not how Serco makes money from prisoners that don’t exist—it’s how it treats the actual prisoners locked up in its private prisons.

Serco runs four prisons in Britain, and many more across the world. Just last month if was given £1.5 billion to run the largest prison in Australia.


In 2013 one of Serco’s British prisons, HMP Thameside, was named as one of Britain’s worst prisons shortly after opening.

A government inspection found that the regime was “one of the most restricted we have ever seen,” with some prisoners spending 23 hours a day in their cells.

Serco also runs 13 immigration detention centres in Britain, where migrants are locked up.

Undercover filming by Channel 4 at the Yarl’s Wood centre found staff making racist and sexist remarks about the women locked up there.

A manager said of the detainees, “They’re all animals. Take a stick in to beat them up”. A guard commented, “These black women are fucking horrible.”

It followed another investigation in 2013 over accusations that vulnerable women were sexually abused. Seven Serco employees were sacked for inappropriate behaviour.

In 2014 Christine Case died in Yarl’s Wood after a heart attack. Serco guards only gave her paracetamol.

Serco is also in charge of running Australia’s vast immigration detention centres on remote islands.

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