Public sector outsourcing under scrutiny as workers begin walkout

Cleaners and caterers demand better pay and conditions as pressure mounts over  ‘two tier’ workforces

Staff at a London NHS trust employed by a third-party contractor are today beginning the first in a series of strikes amid claims they are being paid significantly less than their in-house counterparts – raising the issue of pay disparity between outsourced workers and employees.

United Voices of the World (UVW), the union representing outsourced workers at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, north-west London – part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust – claims they earn up to £10,000 less per year than equivalent staff who are employed under the NHS’s own ‘Agenda for change’ pay scale.

UVW also raised concerns that workers cannot afford to take sick leave because they are only covered by the minimum statutory sick pay, which does not cover the first three days of sickness absence.

However, Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, pointed out there was no requirement for the hospital to match outsourced workers’ wages and sick pay with in-house staff.

“In the case of the workers at St Mary’s Hospital, the decision to strike mirrors many recent examples in which outsourced staff have protested at being treated less favourably than their in-house colleagues,” said Holcroft.

“Some groups have even tried to claim, albeit unsuccessfully, that they should be considered as being directly employed because of the conditions placed upon them.”

UVW has publicly committed to successive weeks of strike action, and warned that it will stretch into December if its demands are unmet.

In a statement on the trust’s website, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust CEO Professor Tim Orchard said the organisation was “concerned” about the impact of minimum pay on its staff, and their welfare has been part of new considerations for the retendering of its facilities management contract, which will come into effect in April 2020.

Orchard added that all staff will be paid the London living wage – currently £10.55 per hour – once the contract starts, and the trust will be working with its contract partners to look at any improvements that can be made before this.

The strikes in the NHS mirror issues in the higher education sector, with figures around spending on outsourced workers recently revealed by the Guardian under Freedom of Information laws.

The newspaper reported that data released by 42 universities showed the number of outsourced workers on zero-hours contracts had increased by almost 70 per cent over seven years, as a means to drive efficiencies amid reductions in funding. 

Individuals who are employed by third-party outsourcing companies often have considerably less favourable terms and conditions, and pension arrangements, than full-time university staff, which many feel creates a two-tier workforce.

A spokesperson for UVW told the Guardian that despite many universities marketing themselves as ethical and critical of exploitation, many of its members who work in higher education institutions are left in “brutal poverty”.

“The exploitative practice of outsourcing means that universities operate a two-tier system, whereby some workers are valued and represented, while others work all hours for poverty wages, can’t afford to take breaks and are often forced to work while ill or injured because of the measly statutory sick pay offered by their direct employer,” they added. 

In 2017, outsourced cleaners at the London School of Economics took industrial action that resulted in them being brought in-house by the university. At the time, Jessica Foster, associate at TLT, predicted that the case could open doors to outsourced workers, arguing that they should be able to collectively bargain with the company that ultimately contracts for their services. 

She added: “For the direct employees, allowing the outsourced workers to join the collective bargaining unit may weaken the terms offered to them, as in many cases a middle ground will be reached for all workers.”

According to the Guardian, hundreds of outsourced cleaners, porters and security workers at University College London are also due to vote on strike action this month for similar pay and conditions to their in-house colleagues.

A Sodexo spokesperson said: “We have been working with our people and recognised trade unions to address their concerns. We are disappointed that some staff have voted to take industrial action. We remain open to negotiation and arbitration. It has already been agreed that the new facilities management contract at Imperial NHS Trust will pay the London living wage as the minimum pay rate from April 2020.”