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‘Unspeakably immoral’

Low-paid ISS workers at Merseyside hospitals continue fight against unpaid wages
Hajera Blagg, Thursday, April 11th, 2019

Hospital workers contracted by outsourcing firm ISS, among the lowest paid people in the country, face the threat of a week’s pay being withheld – a move that’s prompted a backlash of protests from Unite and others.


The Unite members affected, about 250 porters, cleaners, and other low-paid hospital staff across Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University hospitals, will be placed under extreme financial hardship under the plan, which is being undertaken as part of a so-called payroll upgrade.


‘This is going to break me’

Last month, ISS workers were shocked to find out that in the process of being transferred from weekly to fortnightly pay dates, the company will withhold a week’s pay. That means that on the new pay date on May 9, workers will have waited three weeks since their previous pay date to get paid. They will also have worked for three weeks but will only be paid for two – and in effect will be losing a week’s pay.


“For workers who earn as little as £200 a week, this is enough to push them over the edge,” explained Unite regional officer Derek Jones. “Many of our members will have their entire lives planned around weekly pay – their rent, their standing orders and direct debit, everything. Most of these low-paid workers are either the sole breadwinners in their families or single parents. What ISS is doing is unspeakably immoral.”


To take matters worse, the week’s withheld pay will only be paid out to workers once they leave the company. Since ISS already has a week’s pay in hand when workers first started, the planned payroll upgrade will mean workers will have two week’s pay withheld from them until they quit.


ISS staff have spoken out about the crushing impact the decision will have on their lives, with one worker, who asked to remain anonymous saying, “I think this is going to break me”.


The worker shared the view of others in the workforce, who say they have lost faith in the company and so distrust an offer from ISS of a bridging loan.


“I’m the only one working in my house and have two small kids to keep,” he said. “I don’t want to be in debt to ISS – they will owe me two weeks’ pay after holding another week in hand from me and I think I should have that money. Its mine; I’ve earned it, so why can’t I have it? It’s just not right.”


Another worker slammed the way the payroll upgrade was railroaded through, without any consultation.


“This is terrible,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to cope – all my bills and rent go out weekly because I’ve been paid weekly for years now. It’s not fair to just change our pay date just like this.”


‘Ivory tower’ decision

Derek told UNITElive that the total pay withheld as part of the payroll change, which will affect ISS staff across the UK, will amount to an eye-watering £20m.


“Add that to the pay already being withheld from the beginning of workers’ tenure, then we’re looking at about £40m in hard-earned wages that the company is holding back. The interest payments on an amount like that will be huge,” he said. “The company is essentially profiting off stolen wages.”


“Decisions like these are of course being made in ivory towers by executives who have absolutely no understanding of what it’s like to live pay check to pay check.”


Indeed, ISS’ top executives raked in sums that its low-paid staff couldn’t begin to fathom – five directors of ISS UK earned £2m between them in 2017. The highest paid director earned half a million pounds, while Jeff Gravenhorst, group CEO of ISS, a Danish-owned multinational and one of Britain’s largest outsourcing firms, took home £2m in 2018.


Unite fighting back

As ISS executives carry on with the payroll upgrade, unmoved by the plight of their workers, Unite and other unions are fighting back.


Last Friday (April 5), Unite spearheaded a demonstration outside the Royal Liverpool Hospital, alongside unions GMB and Unison. The protest drew hundreds of people from across the community — Unite Community members, local CLPs, local councillors as well as directly employed hospital staff and others from Merseyside joined together in a stunning display of solidarity with ISS staff.


“There was a broad spectrum of support at the demonstration from across Merseyside – it showed the collective strength of feeling over this shocking injustice meted out against some of the lowest paid workers in the country,” Derek said.


Unite is planning another demo on Monday, April 15, to continue pressing its case over unpaid wages, and to also mark the day ISS staff at the two Merseyside hospitals will begin an industrial action ballot over a separate issue involving unequal pay.


As these low-paid workers, most of whom are women, face the threat of withheld wages, they have also lost out on the agreed national pay uplift for NHS workers that both directly employed staff as well as contracted staff at other Merseyside hospitals have received.


The pay disparity is stark — at the Women’s and Walton hospitals, for example, the lowest-paid staff, many of whom are contracted employees, secured a 11.4 pay rise as part of the national NHS pay rise. Meanwhile, ISS workers at Broadgreen and Royal Liverpool hospitals languish on little more than the minimum wage.


“We find ourselves in the untenable and absurd position where ISS staff at Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen hospitals — who are doing the exact same jobs as colleagues at hospitals that are in some cases just a mile or two away — are being paid substantially less,” Derek said. “Management’s refusal to consult properly over pay has left our members with no option but to ballot for industrial action.”


“The moral case against the actions of one of the largest and most lucrative outsourcing companies in the UK is clear,” he added. “We need to stand up and make our voice heard. We hope members of the public will join us outside the Royal on Monday lunchtime to demand parity pay for this group of low paid workers.”


Find out more about the latest demo on Monday, April 15, and how you can take part on Unite North West’s event page here. Tweet your support using the hashtag #ISSlowpaidunpaid.


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