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The press has been full of stories and pictures of striking Barts Health NHS Trust hospital cleaners, porters, catering and security staff in London; employees of Serco, which is allegedly attempting to cut jobs and increase workloads and refusing to pay a 30p per hour wage increase that the Unite union is demanding for its workers at the Trust.
The 14-day strike started on 25th July, following a ballot in which 99% of the union members voted for industrial action. It follows an earlier 48-hour stoppage and subsequent seven-day walkout and our picture shows a breakaway group protesting today outside a Serco investors meeting.
Serco won the £600 million soft services contract for the Trust last year and when it took over the contract in April, is said to have agreed to pay all workers the London Living Wage (LLW) of £9.75 an hour. Unite says that due to increasing living costs, many employees are struggling to make ends meet and some are having to work second jobs.
It's unclear from both the press coverage and Unite's website, whether the LLW is actually being paid and that the extra 30p per hour is on top of that, or whether the employees are being paid 30p per hour less than the LLW. Unfortunately, I've not been able to speak with anyone that can clarify this for me.
Unfortunately, too, the press is knocking the cleaning industry, discussing Serco's profits alongside stories of hardworking cleaners who are worried about their futures.
While I can't comment on individual cases, it is clear that no-one stops to consider how labour intensive the business of cleaning is and how difficult it might be for some contractors to pay the LLW... While a few pence extra per hour doesn't sound very much, when calculated over the huge workforce and numbers of hours worked, it soon adds up.
Private companies may well be in a position to cover their contractors' costs of paying the LLW (and many of them do) but the NHS isn't balancing its books as it is. Where do we go from here, I wonder? Goodness only knows how the hospitals involved in this case: Whipps Cross, Royal London, St Bartholomew and Mile End, are coping without the input of these crucial staff - and I hope the dispute can be resolved soon, for everyone's benefit.
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3rd August 2017