The NHS’ 70th birthday on Thursday (July 5) wasn’t the only thing the health service had to celebrate last week.
Only one day later on Friday (July 6), an NHS trust scrapped plans to outsource 900 workers – including plumbers, porters, cleaners, fitters and electricians – to a wholly owned subsidiary after the workers, Unite and Unison members, took strike action against the privatisation proposals.
The workers of Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) Foundation Trust covering five different hospitals took nine days of strike action starting in May and June, with more walkouts planned in July, but in a dramatic intervention, Wigan council leader David Molyneux and deputy leader Keith Cunliffe brokered a deal with the trade unions and Trust bosses that saw off the threat of privatisation.
The trust first proposed setting up the subsidiary, WWL Solutions, in response to the £14.5m in savings it would have to make in order to balance the books. Trust bosses argued setting up the subsidiary was necessary to achieve savings but Unite and Unison highlighted that these savings would be made at the expense of workers, whose wages, terms and conditions were open to being undercut after being outsourced.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe explained that what was happening at the Wigan trust was part of an NHS-wide problem – so far about 40 wholly-owned subsidiaries in England have either been announced or are already running.
‘Wider privatisation agenda’
These subsidiaries simply aren’t necessary, said Jarrett-Thorpe, but Unite fears they are being used so trusts can avoid paying VAT. This way, they can compete with other private companies which can claim VAT exemption when Trusts can’t. Unite has lobbied the government to close this loophole, which the Treasury has so far not done. In the meantime, Unite is taking on this sort of backdoor privatisation through industrial action.
“What is happening in Wigan is symptomatic of a wider agenda of privatisation and fragmentation that has bedevilled the health service in recent years,” Jarrett-Thorpe said in a LabourList comment last week. “The source of this ideology is the discredited 2012 Health and Social Care Act that reinforced the tendering out of contracts, which has turned out to be an open sesame for profit-hungry private healthcare companies keen to gobble up lucrative contracts leaving a trail of chaos, fragmentation and confusion in its wake.”
For WWL workers, their victory is an important one against privatisation – the Trust has now agreed to implement different plans to achieve the savings, and the resolution to the dispute shows that privatisation, especially following Carillion’s collapse, is both unnecessary and needlessly risky.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey hailed the news of WWL workers’ win.
“Fantastic news that plans to outsource 900 workers to WWL solutions have been withdrawn,” he said. “They will continue to work for our NHS. Other trusts must follow suit. Our North West Unite members fought a tremendous campaign with North West Unison. Solidarity and determination won the day.”
Unite members at Barts Health NHS Trust are facing a similar battle. Because the Trust’s support workers, including porters, cleaners, security and other staff, were transferred from the NHS to outsourcing giant Serco last year, they are being denied the pay rise given to directly-employed NHS staff, which amounts to an average salary boost of £2000 a year for low-paid workers.
They are now fighting for a proper pay rise in line with their NHS colleagues.
“Excluding indirectly employed NHS workers from the new pay deal is unjust,” Jarrett-Thorpe said. “It will be a disaster for morale with thousands of low paid NHS workers being made to feel like the poor relations of NHS employees.
“Thousands of low paid workers at Barts NHS Trust, the biggest Trust in Britain, are already up in arms over being excluded from the deal and more workers from other Trusts could follow. Regardless of whether an NHS worker is employed by a private company or the NHS, they are still health workers and their contribution to patient’s health must be recognised.”