Pathologists working for King George Hospital Ilford and Queens Hospital Romford have ramped up their campaign against management bullying and the imposition of a new shift pattern after a two protests on Tuesday (September 3) and Thursday (September 5).
The protest on Tuesday at King George Hospital coincided with a visit from Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors, who had come to investigate other issues at the hospital, which is currently in special measures.
Unite seized the opportunity to broadcast to the CQC delegates the seriousness of the matter at a time when relations between management and staff have totally broken down amid an entrenched culture of workplace bullying.
Protesting workers gathered near a building where the CQC inspectors were having their lunch. They waived flags and brandished placards denouncing the bullying culture, while Unite regional officer Ruth Hydon (pictured) described their working conditions through a megaphone within earshot of the CQC inspectors above.
Together with a second protest at Queens Hospital on Thursday, Unite has now as a direct result of the demonstrations secured a meeting with the CQC at the end of the month.
The heart of the dispute centres around the imposition of a new shift pattern by their employer Barking Havering and Redbridge University Trust, which could see some pathologists lose a jaw-dropping £10,000 a year.
“For us, this was the final straw – they want us to provide a seven-day service, which in theory we’re definitely not against, but we simply don’t have the required number of people or the proper skill mix to carry out such a service,” Joan*, a pathologist and Unite member said.
At present, pathologists at the Trust work Monday through Friday, 9am to 5.30pm or 8.30am to 5.30pm. Late and night shifts are covered by an on-call and overtime system that has worked successfully for years. This enables staff with children or caring responsibilities to maintain a work-life balance, while it enables others to top up their basic salary – which starts at only £25,000 – with overtime pay.
“Some staff have disabilities too which means that they are unable to participate in the new shift system,” Joan explained. “What angers us most is that this shift pattern is being implemented without meaningful consultation, consideration of family commitments and caring responsibilities – we know what it takes to provide a good service, and this is definitely not the way to do it.”
Staff also feel betrayed by what they see as a violation of pay protection which is written into their contracts. This protection means that if their roles are down-banded because of a management re-organisation, they’re given a certain number of years to adjust to lower pay instead of being hit by a sudden reduction in wages. This allows staff with fixed financial responsibilities – such as mortgage and rent payments – to make other arrangements.
The shift pattern management are trying to force through now in practice will mean a significant loss in wages, up to £10,000 a year in some cases, for staff who depend on overtime. But in this case, bosses are refusing to honour the pay protection agreement.
What worries Joan most about her job is that she feels without proper resourcing and staffing, patient safety and lives may be at risk.
This was a concern shared by her colleague Tom*, who told UniteLive at today’s protest that he’s most worried about the effect of working without breaks would have on patient safety.
“The proposed rota under the new shift system is unsafe for patients and for pathologists doing the work. If you’re doing nights under this rota, you don’t have protected break time. That can mean doing two nights in sequence, which is very unsafe,” he said.
“There’s also no contingency measure in case someone calls in sick. If you’re on a late shift for example, you might be asked to carry on working into the night through to the next morning. Imagine how stressed the pathologist would be and how easily he could make a mistake that could have severe consequences for patients.”
Unite member and pathologist Anne* agreed.
“We haven’t had the staffing that they’ve promised to hire, so going to a shift system that they’re trying to push through without consultation is simply not safe,” she said.
Mark*, who is training to be a pathologist, said that he fears what he’ll be faced with if the shift system is instituted.
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” he explained. “I’m really nervous about being forced into a position where we’re working without adequate numbers of staff.”
‘Meet with us’ call
Unite regional officer Ruth Hydon lambasted Trust management for refusing to consult with the union and its members.
“As a result of this dispute, they’ve refused to meet with us since December of last year. They’re just ignoring us,” she said. “They’ve delayed the imposition of the shift system and now have vowed to railroad it through at the end of the month.”
Ruth said that following a consultative ballot which was unanimously in favour of industrial action, the union is now preparing to move to a full industrial action ballot and plans to serve notice to Trust bosses in the coming days.
“Our members particularly in pathology do a vital job in testing samples that come from patients, and it’s critical that those samples are turned around quickly and reliably,” she said. “When we’re faced with such an arrogant management, the shift pattern they’re forcing through alongside bullying of staff could have huge implications for patients – if they don’t get their results reliably it could delay a diagnosis or even result in a wrong diagnosis.
“We call on the Trust to stop ignoring us,” Ruth added. “All other Trusts I’m involved with meet with us and work with us – why won’t they?”
*Names changed to protect privacy