‘Second-class citizens’: Homerton Hospital grilled on extension of outsourced labour

Campaigners at the Homerton Hospital.

Trade unions have said that morale is low among outsourced catering, security, cleaning and porter staff at the Homerton Hospital, with union members reporting their terms and conditions in comparison to NHS staff leave them feeling like “second-class citizens”.

Concerns have been repeatedly raised by unions Unison and the GMB over half of the 200 workers outsourced to facilities company ISS not receiving sick pay for the first three days of their illness, after which the key workers receive £95.85/wk, a significant reduction from a salary of £80 to £100 a day.

Last night’s Health in Hackney scrutiny commission, which brought together union and Homerton Hospital Trust representatives to discuss the issue, highlighted the fact that 77 per cent of the 200-strong workforce is from an ethnic minority community, with councillors concerned that the contract “locks in disparities” by re-signing the contract.

Unison area organiser Michael Etheridge said: “The proposed new contract is absolutely devastating for our members. They feel betrayed by a trust that tells them they are part of ‘one NHS family’ while failing to demonstrate this. Unison reps have been making the case to management for many months for a substantive improvement to their terms and conditions.

“We oppose the outsourcing of these services in the NHS. It is bad for workers, bad for the community the hospital serves, and drives down terms and conditions across the public sector. Cost reductions may seem attractive, but ultimately they are passed on to workers.

“Outsourcing creates a two-tier workforce. Morale is particularly low amongst outsourced staff, with members reporting that they feel like ‘second-class citizens’. The fact that they are a majority Black and ethnic minority workforce makes this all the more shameful.”

Unison slammed ISS for reporting a profit of over $200m last year, which the trade union said was money made “off the backs of our members, who they refuse to pay proper sick pay or the London Living Wage (LLW)”, going on to brand the company an “irresponsible employer”.

The company was said at the meeting to have agreed to pay LLW as part of the current contract, with pay rates falling behind LLW rates between 2017 and 2020, with members currently owed “thousands” in back pay, according to Unison.

GMB NHS organiser Lola McEvoy added: “This contract locks workers into five more years into frankly below par and poverty-inducing terms and conditions says something about how we as a borough value these people.

“There are serious concerns raised about the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had on certain ethnicities who are overrepresented in the facilities management contract.

“There have been multiple complaints about ISS from both trade unions about bullying, harassment, and a refusal to pay sick pay to people with very severe illnesses.

“If these things do not flag up ISS as an irresponsible and wholly inadequate employer within our public services, I would be interested to hear how what we and our members have experienced at the Homerton fits with the Trust’s decision [to extend].”

The Homerton’s director of finance Phill Wells told listening councillors that the board of the hospital chose to recontract with the company for another five years, with the decision “reflecting the general uncertainty in the soft facilities management market, but also the additional risk and uncertainty resulting from the economic fallout of leaving the EU and the devastating effect on the economy of the recent health crisis”.

Wells said: “ISS have been a part of achieving our ‘Outstanding’ CQC rating, and we’re incredibly grateful for the work that they do. The service standards from them over this contract have been really rather exceptional.

“All of the technical audits that are undertaken at the hospital are of a very high standard, and the ISS team put in a great amount of effort to make sure that is the case.

“We are proud of that work, and in particular the work the Homerton team with the ISS staff have been doing through the course of the recent pandemic.”

The finance chief added that the new contract would be “largely like-for-like” with the current arrangements, though “two fundamental issues” are not addressed at present: sick pay and the LLW uplift.

Councillors heard that the hospital is “really optimistic” that an agreement will be reached on the above two issues, though Wells stressed that “we are not there yet, but within touching distance of getting to a place that gives us the sort of recognition that is being talked about”.

Homerton workforce chief Tom Nettel said that while the hospital had seen issues around pay, pay dates and the processing of annual leave, going on to claim that these matters had been addressed and express disagreement with unions that there was “evidence of really serious concerns” with ISS’s management of its workforce.

Chairing the meeting, Cllr Ben Hayhurst said: “I came to the figure that it would cost the Homerton as a hospital at most £80-90,000 to ask ISS to provide full sick pay. The hospital’s full turnover is in excess of £250m/yr.

“Presumably if you say to ISS, ‘We’re going to pay for it’, they will give it. The question goes to the Homerton: bearing in mind the clear disparities that are there, and it is a basic right, and these are the key workers that have kept us going over the last few months, and I am sure that [Phill and Tom] have sick pay rights and that the rest of the board and the executive team do, for a not enormous sum of money, why can’t you say, we’re prepared to pay, and we’d like you to ensure full sick pay?”

Wells responded that the councillor’s maths were “good”, though it would cost “something more” than the amount Hayhurst asserted, adding: “The Homerton’s revenue is actually about £340m. The Trust overall is a break-even trust.

“While our revenue base seems large, our cost base is equally large, and our target this year is to simply break even as an organisation. Whatever we add to the cost base of the Trust will present something of a challenge to the way we fund it, and necessitate us seeking efficiencies elsewhere.

“Those should be found and that is part of the time it has taken to ensure we can strike a deal with ISS that is appropriate. I am determined that the deal we strike recognises the work, the effort, the commitment and the personal risk on occasion that the ISS team have put themselves to working alongside all of us inside the NHS as full-paid members.”

When quizzed on why break clauses could not be included in the five-year extension of the contract, the finance chief responded that any break clause would increase the cost of the contract to the hospital.

The contract was announced through the use of a so-called voluntary ex-ante transparency (VEAT) notice, which removes the necessity for other companies to compete with ISS. Union reps at the meeting claimed that such a process is usually used “in the very specific circumstances that there were absolutely no problems whatsoever with a contract”.

Councillors also grilled the representatives of the Trust on whether an equality impact assessment of the contract would be forthcoming, who said that such an assessment would be undertaken once agreement had been reached on “the elements of the contract that are going to impact on the people that are employed by ISS”, though the Homerton did not confirm whether the full detail of the assessment would be published.

An ISS spokesperson said: “ISS is a responsible employer, committed to the wellbeing of our employees. We have a long and proud history of providing high quality services to the NHS and greatly value our teams and the work that they provide.

“We have an open and honest culture where employees can approach any manager with any issues. If any employee does have a concern, we would encourage them to report this immediately to a member of the onsite management team.”