George Binette –

Hackney North & Stoke Newington Constituency Labour Party Trade Union Liaison Officer

DESPITE MOUNTING OPPOSITION the Board of Directors at Homerton University Hospital Foundation Trust (HUHFT) in Hackney, east London looks set to ink a further five-year contract for ‘soft facility’ management with Danish-based multinational ISS later this month (July) without a competitive tendering exercise. Citing a supposed lack of ‘bandwidth’, HUHFT Chief Executive Tracey Fletcher has defied widespread calls from unions, local politicians and Hackney residents, as well as some Trust governors and scores of the Homerton’s own doctors, to move towards insourcing the 300-strong workforce of cleaners, porters, catering and reception/security staff.

ISS-Mediclean originally secured the Homerton facility management contract, valued at more than £45 million, in 2015. The five-year deal was set to expire on 30 September. The 2015 agreement included an ostensible commitment to ensure that the London Living Wage (LLW) would be the minimum hourly rate on the contract, but by 2017 a substantial part of the workforce, which had TUPE transferred from another private firm (Medirest) had seen their wage rates fall behind. For more than two years these workers received less than LLW and while this is no longer the case there is still an issue of back pay, in some cases amounting to more than £2,000.

Nearly 80% of the HUHFT ISS workforce comes from Black and other ethnic minority groups. Many of these workers have no contractual right to occupational sick pay and would normally only receive statutory sick pay of just £95.85 a week with no pay at all for the first three days of sickness absence. In recent evidence to Hackney Council’s Health in Hackney Scrutiny Commission, University of Newcastle professor and Independent SAGE member, Allyson Pollock, noted the importance of “full financial protection” for all staff working in a hospital setting as a key tool in infection control. Faced with union pressure ISS did concede sick pay from day one for those obliged to self-isolate midst the Covid crisis, but this arrangement was only temporary and the issue’s relevance goes beyond the immediate context of a global pandemic.

With workers facing an ugly choice between working while unwell or scraping by on woefully inadequate pay, there are obvious implications for both worker and patient safety. And yet there is still no commitment to ensure that occupational sick pay for the whole workforce features in the new contract. In fact, senior Trust management have suggested that they are reluctant to incorporate it for fear that it will encourage absenteeism!

Beyond the issue of sick pay, there remains a yawning gap between ISS employees and directly employed NHS staff. Typically, an ISS employee working full-time would earn some £1,500 less a year than someone on the lowest pay band on an Agenda for Change employment contract – and that’s before considering the absence of enhanced rates for overtime and anti-social hours.

Last autumn both the GMB and Unison launched campaigns, which swiftly merged, to bring the ISS workforce ‘in house’ on Agenda for Change contracts. Inevitably, the Covid crisis dramatically curtailed public campaigning after early March, though unions and Labour Party activists are again working to raise the profile of opposition to the HUHFT Board’s decision. The Trust Board, meanwhile, is keen to publicise the hospital’s recent ‘outstanding’ rating from the Care Quality Commission, which, of course, pays no heed to the reality facing a substantial proportion of the Homerton-based workforce.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s second term the outsourcing of NHS ancillary staff has become the norm and the privatisation of jobs often held by ‘BAME’ workers has often been overlooked midst concerns about the wider marketisation and dismantling of the NHS. But the Covid pandemic has served as a potent reminder that these are indeed key workers, who should be truly integrated members of the ‘NHS family’. This means that the fight both at the Homerton and nationally must intensify to win full Agenda for Change pay and conditions for these workers and to ensure that Covid does not serve as a cloak for cash-strapped Trusts to continue feeding such outsourcing giants as ISS.        

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