Today, I, along with hundreds of other hospital cleaners, caterers, porters and security workers at St Barts Trust, will be taking strike action.
Between December and April, so-called ‘soft service’ workers across Whipps Cross, Mile End, Royal London and St Bartholomew’s Hospitals were fully privatised over to the Serco corporation in a contract worth £600m. Overnight we went from being valued workers in the NHS to being the employees of a private company better known for running prisons. This alone was upsetting for many of us, especially those with decades of service in the NHS.
When Serco came in they promised us that nothing would change and if anything, things would get better. In reality, I felt things got worse almost immediately. Within three days of taking over the Royal London Hospital they attempted to abolish our ten-minute morning tea break; this was only reinstated after 120 of us walked off the job and demanded it was returned. On top of this, cleaners often find themselves doing the jobs of two people. A hospital domestic now has 57 duties to complete in a given shift – everything from mopping numerous floors, cleaning dozens of toilets as well as difficult tasks like high dusting. We are heavily scrutinised by managers and supervisors and face huge pressure to complete tasks in an impossible time-frame. As a result of this, many of us are starting work up to 30 minutes earlier (unpaid) and many of us work through our breaks as we do not have enough time to serve food to patients or complete our allocations.
This culture of overwork has led to a huge strain on us both mentally and physically. I have frequently seen colleagues, grown men and women, break down into tears as they simply cannot take the pressure any more. Many of us are talking about quitting the hospital altogether. I myself have had to go off sick with swollen hands due to having to clean multiple wards – similarly I have developed a back ache from having to rush through my tasks. Other injuries I have seen in my colleagues include tendinitis, aching joints and ganglion cysts from abrasions. Where once I used to come home and spend time with my children and help them with their schoolwork, now I often come home and simply fall asleep.
In March we submitted a pay claim to Serco for an extra 30p per hour. This is to cover the rising costs of travel and general inflation. Serco have rejected this out of hand. This is despite the fact they are making huge profits every year. Their CEO alone, Rupert Soames, makes over £2m per year in salary plus bonus. One of us would have to work over a century to earn that. Along with other NHS workers, we have had a pay freeze for years. The previous argument for this was that the NHS didn’t have enough money; but it is clear that that isn’t the case with Serco. It seems that their priority in St Bart’s isn’t patient care rather squeezing us in order to make as much profit as possible. They want more and more work from people so they can pocket the difference.
We love our jobs and love being part of our NHS, however these private companies are making it almost impossible to bear. This is not a strike simply about money, but about our dignity as hospital support workers. We hope you will support us.