Back where they belong

Fighting to bring public services back in-house is vital work – and two recent victories show that the effort is well worth it

UNISON’s #oneteam NHS campaign highlights the crucial role that NHS support staff play. And one of its main aims is to ensure that the NHS and its staff remain in the public sector.

For security guards in the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS trust and over 1,000 cleaners, porters and catering staff at hospitals in the Imperial College Healthcare trust, this wasn’t the case – until two major victories for the union.

East Lancashire Hospitals NHS trust

Earlier this year, security staff at Burnley General and Royal Blackburn hospitals were employed by multinational outsourcing giant Engie Services Ltd. Only paid the minimum wage, they were left up to £6,000 worse off each year compared to security guards employed on NHS terms.

The guards submitted a pay claim in October 2020 and, after exhausting all other avenues, members voted 100% in favour of taking industrial action over their employer’s refusal to pay NHS rates. It was an impressive display of resolve and, within weeks, more than 700 NHS workers had signed a petition in their support.

One member of the staff pledged their support, saying: “As an NHS junior doctor, security staff are part of our team and often help us out of escalating or tough situations. It is disgraceful that these NHS heroes get less than NHS rates, terms and conditions.”

In a dramatic turn of events in mid-April, the guards cancelled their industrial action plans in the week before a 48-hour strike, as the trust took the decision not only to bring security staff back in-house at the end of the contract, but also to pay the guards the NHS hourly and overtime rates until the TUPE transfer takes place.

The contract for security services between Engie and the trust will end within the next three to six months, at which point the hospital security guards will transfer to health service employment and be entitled to full NHS Agenda for Change pay and conditions.

In an outpouring of relief at the meeting where the deal was confirmed, members welcomed the offer, with one night-supervisor saying: “It’s a fantastic offer and a very welcome outcome to the dispute over fair wages for a job we put everything into. We are looking forward to working for the trust and being treated as equals with our NHS colleagues.”

UNISON North West regional organiser Rebecca Lumberg said: “This is an excellent victory for this group of dedicated hospital workers, who stuck together and rightly insisted that they were part of the NHS team.

“Hospital security workers keep patients and staff safe. They have put themselves at increased risk working during the pandemic and they fully deserve the NHS pay and conditions that they will now receive.

“We commend the commitment and hard-work undertaken to ensure that this issue was positively resolved before strike action was taken. We look forward to working in partnership with the trust.”

Imperial College Healthcare Trust

In April 2020, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust temporarily brought a thousand low-paid porters, cleaners and catering staff back in-house. They had been employed by the enormous private contractor Sodexo since 2015.

As part of the transfer back to the NHS, staff from Sodexo working across several London hospitals saw their pay, overtime, pensions, and sickness allowances brought in line with other health service workers, ending years of unfair treatment.

The year-long deal was up for review in March – and instead of considering another outsourcing, it was announced in April that the trust will continue to directly employ these staff, following negotiations with UNISON.

The trust will now start the process of consulting staff to move them over to full NHS Agenda for Change terms and conditions, ending the unfair disparity of a two-tier workforce.

UNISON Greater London regional organiser Debbie Eakins said: “We’re very pleased that the trust has not only made this decision permanent but also are looking to improve the terms and conditions of staff contracts further.

“Cleaners, porters, and catering staff play a vital role and the NHS simply would not function without them.

UNISON national secretary Donna Rowe-Merriman said: “NHS Trusts around the country are seeing the benefits of bring outsourced workers back in-house and ending the two-tier workforce.

“Private companies only take on these contracts to profit from billions of pounds of public contracts – money that should be used to provide NHS services, not extracted for shareholder dividends.”

UNISON continues to take the lead in the fight to bring all services across the public sector back in-house, aiming to stop billions of pounds of contracts being outsourced to the lowest bidder at the cost of service quality and workers’ terms and conditions.

How to win insourcing

Create a branch insourcing campaign team, supported by regional organising staff, to identify target areas – not least those services where contracts are up for renewal.

When you’ve decided on a service, the campaign team should put together a briefing that outlines the case for insourcing the contract.

The briefing should cover all the benefits of returning the service in-house, including: the decreased risk; public support and accountability; lower costs; greater flexibility; better quality; better jobs, terms and conditions.

The team should engage with the managers and decision-makers responsible for the renewal of the contract, organising early meetings and discussions on possible insourcing. And it should keep all members and other relevant parties informed about the campaign.

The team should also:

  • research bargaining information on the contractor currently delivering the service – and any potential new contractors. UNISON’s bargaining support team can support this process;
  • engage and lobby political leaders, including local MPs, councillors, NHS trust board members;
  • identify potential legal issues during the tendering process. Seek advice and support from the union’s legal advisors;
  • conduct local media campaigns – make the UNISON case for insourcing to the service users and other stakeholders;
  • identify any possible industrial dispute.

Evidence shows that insourced services make sense, with benefits for workers, service users and council finances. It’s a battle worth fighting and a battle we can win.

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