'We have to get that message out'
In Part 3 of our ‘Have your Say on NHS Pay’ series, UniteLive speaks to Unite rep and NHS maintenance worker Franco Villani
Unite’s consultative ballot on industrial action over NHS pay in England closes on September 30. Each day this week, we’ll hear from a different member from our Unite health sector who explains why it’s so important to have your say on pay.
While doctors, paramedics and nurses are rightly celebrated as heroes in our NHS, the health service is made up of hundreds of thousands of staff, many of them working behind the scenes but who are just as much on the frontline as their more public counterparts.
Unite rep Franco Villani and his colleagues in maintenance are among these unsung heroes, but Franco is reticent to see it that way.
“We see ourselves as one NHS family and we all work really well together,” he told UniteLive.
But there’s no denying the absolutely essential work that Franco and his colleagues in NHS trusts across the country do. Without them, hospitals would not be even able to open their doors – it is the maintenance team that keeps the lights on, the heating going and the water running.
“Our roles were especially important during the Covid pandemic because of the necessity of having adequate ventilation throughout the hospital to keep the virus from spreading,” he explained.
Just like so many other workers in the health service, they faced unimaginable trauma during the pandemic.
“The last two years was a complete shock for all of us,” Franco noted. “The worst is that we were going into a total unknown. We’ve seen patients die; we’ve seen our colleagues pass away and become very, very ill from Covid and placed in intensive care. It’s been a real struggle. It’s been relentless.”
Franco and his colleagues welcomed the recognition they received during the Thursday evening clapping sessions at the beginning of the pandemic, as well as other tokens of appreciation such as NHS staff discounts.
“But one of my colleagues said that as soon as we get out of this pandemic, it will all be forgotten about,” he said.
And sure enough, he was right – when it came time for the NHS pay review body (PRB) to look at pay rises, both this year and last, there was a long delay until the pay rise announcements were made.
“We knew when the announcements were delayed that it would be another kick in teeth,” Franco explained. “We knew we would be disheartened by it.”
This year, the government announced that the majority of NHS workers will receive the equivalent of a 4 per cent rise at a time when the RPI measure of inflation has exceeded 12 per cent. And so it is another year of a decisive pay cut. Taken together with a decade of pay freezes and below-inflation pay rises, Franco said he “can’t believe we’ve gone through all this, and this is how they treat us”.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that now many NHS workers are better off working in supermarkets,” he noted. “We simply can’t recruit at the moment – we can’t even get basic job roles filled like gardeners, plumbers, grounds people, electricians – because the financial rewards are so much greater in the private sector.”
For those who decide to remain in the NHS, making ends meet has only become more and more difficult.
“I know colleagues who have small children are especially struggling,” Franco reports. “We actually now have NHS trusts that are setting up food banks and offering staff financial hardship loans. The situation for staff really can’t get any lower or more desperate than that.”
Franco said he fears that if pay doesn’t increase substantially in the NHS, then the health service will cease to exist as we know it.
“Retention and recruitment are absolutely vital right now,” he told UniteLive. “Our number one priority now should be retention – we need to make sure the staff we do have are looked after. Then our second priority needs to be recruitment – we have to get out there and show people that the NHS is a damn good place to work.”
Franco emphasised that “NHS staff do work really well together” even under the most difficult circumstances. All they need is to be properly supported – and rewarded — to carry out the phenomenal team work that is at the centre of their jobs.
This is why, Franco notes, that “it’s never been more crucial, more critical, to vote in this consultative ballot than it has been in our entire working lives”.
“We have to get that message out to the government – as Unite members we have to get our vote out and show them exactly where we stand,” he said. “Voting in this ballot only takes a matter of minutes – and it is the only way we’ll have our voices heard.”
If you’re a Unite member working in the health sector in England, it’s not too late to vote in the consultative ballot on industrial action over NHS pay. You will have already received either an email notification or letter with a QR code to vote online. If you haven’t received either of these, you should speak to your rep in the first instance, or email [email protected] The ballot closes next Friday on September 30.
By Hajera Blagg