- Interview by
- David Broder
As coronavirus claims ever more lives, cleaners are on the front line of containing its spread — not least in our hospitals. Yet at Lewisham Hospital, the first in London to treat a patient hit by coronavirus, these workers are little rewarded for their efforts. Not only are wages just £8.21 an hour, but some have been missing pay for weeks — leaving them unable to pay the bills even as their jobs become yet more stressful.
With a fresh missed payment on Thursday, March 12, they’d had enough — and walked off the job. Private cleaning contractor ISS, notorious for its shoddy employment practices, promised to resolve the issue overnight, and staff returned to work on Friday morning. Yet the company failed to follow through on its promise — meaning that these already low-paid workers are still waiting on their wages.
The workers are organized in the GMB union. The GMB’s Helen O’Connor spoke to Jacobin about why the cleaners went on strike, how outsourcing is undermining workers’ conditions, and why proper rights and sick pay for workers are also a matter of patient safety.
First, can you tell us how the strike happened?
Some of the cleaning workers at Lewisham Hospital have been missing pay since February 27. The straw that broke the camel’s back was on Thursday, March 12, when they again didn’t get paid — and they walked off the job. When I rushed over to the hospital, the workers were queued up outside the ISS offices, and the company was hurrying to print out pay slips. ISS offered to meet workers one-on-one and promised the money would be in their accounts on Friday, March 13.
The workers clocked in to work on Friday, but there was still no money — and at lunchtime they held a protest outside the hospital. The ISS director there, Nick Clarke, rang me and agreed to meet. But when we demanded £100 in compensation for each worker, he accused us of holding him to “ransom.” He said the issue could take a week to resolve, but promised, as a “concession,” that the workers’ wages would go up to £10.55 an hour in April — yet this was something ISS had already previously committed to. I said the workers would see right through it — he was just trying to stop the protests.
It seemed ISS didn’t appreciate what was going on. Workers can’t do without their wages — it means they can’t pay bills and that their direct debits bounce. One cleaner is having to walk to work, from Woolwich to Lewisham [around 5 miles] as he can’t afford the fare to come on public transport. If this isn’t sorted, there could be further walkouts next week.
Faced with coronavirus, we see how much we depend on workers like cleaners and elderly care staff. They’re on the front line of dealing with the crisis, yet these are some of the lowest-paid workers in society . . .
That’s right. Our members are dedicated to their work — and they want to put keeping people safe first. But from ISS management they’ve only had broken promises and threats.
We make the point that public health is directly connected to privatization and how workers are treated. Take the issue of sick pay. Working in a hospital you’re particularly likely to get sick. But Statutory Sick Pay is so low [just £94.25 a week] that workers will still feel forced to come into work, even if it would be better if they didn’t.
So, giving workers proper sick pay, from the first day they take off, is important for protecting both workers and the patients themselves. That’s why we want all these services taken back in-house on proper NHS conditions and perks.
Some medical staff are posting online to say they’re working longer hours, and obviously amid the pandemic they’re under even greater stress. Does coronavirus mean an extra burden for cleaning staff?
Yes, because it’s not even been made clear who’s responsible for cleaning the ward if there’s an infection, or if the NHS will bring someone in. Equally there’s the whole issue of protective equipment — workers are being given instructions on what they should be putting on, but are the materials there? Some staff moving patients around are worried about the amount of gloves and sanitizer — and some of them feel unprotected. And again, there’s the issue of sick pay. ISS have agreed to two weeks on full pay if workers have to self-isolate, but the fact they’ve already failed to pay workers’ wages shakes our faith that they’ll actually follow through on that.
You’ve highlighted the outsourcing of cleaning staff, but also a wider issue of the misallocation of resources. The GMB called on the government to requisition private hospital beds to help confront coronavirus, and Labour has now taken up this call . . .
The NHS is like an upside-down Christmas tree. At the top there’s a bureaucracy administering private contracts and NHS managers who are managing decline, on huge salaries. But there are layers and layers of that before you even get down to ward level, from manager down to cleaner.
I’m a former NHS nurse and was subject to two “restructurings” — each of which meant making the health service “leaner,” meaning less staff. Health care workers are doing the work of two or three people, and they’re overrun — but they’re also suppressed from speaking out about the stress they’re under.
The two biggest threats to the NHS are cuts and privatization. We’re not seeing investment in pay and in improving terms and conditions. Hospital trusts are required to make “cost improvements,” which strip out funding and hand it back to the Treasury, while private firms operating within the NHS are driving down standards. Companies like ISS are dragging their heels on even pay increases of a few pence, just to meet inflation. That’s why we demand that everything should be brought back in-house.
Coronavirus is a huge threat to the NHS. The chancellor of the exchequer said that the NHS will get everything it needs to deal with coronavirus — yet Lewisham cleaners aren’t even being paid properly. We need to be investing on the front line, with all the people delivering services, because the quality of patient care is also linked to the well-being of staff. There’s a recruitment crisis in the NHS. That’s not going to be resolved unless it’s made a more attractive place to work.