The brave battle of UNISON’s health members against NHS outsourcing was brought into the spotlight in Brighton last week.
Some of the Wigan hospital cleaners, catering staff and porters who are striking against plans to transfer them to a wholly owned subsidiary were applauded by the national delegate conference, where they were awarded £5,000 from the branch hardship fund.
Delegates also approved a motion calling for a national campaign against the arms-length companies that the union believes will create a two-tier workforce and could lead to back-door privatisation of the NHS.
More and more NHS trusts are seeking to set up arms-length companies as a way of exploiting a VAT loophole and reduce their operating costs.
These companies carry out estates and facilities work on a contractual basis. While members are TUPEd, UNISON believes they will be vulnerable to attacks on their terms and conditions, with new staff employed on inferior terms.
Hundreds of hospital workers in Wigan, Leigh and Wrightington in the north-west of England have held two 48-hour strikes against the plans to outsource them.
“We are fighting to stay part of the NHS,” Hazel Leatherbarrow, told delegates. “We all do important jobs. We are one team and we want to stay as a team.
“The NHS should not be working as a tax evader and refusing a generation of cleaners, caterers and porters a decent livelihood.”
Ms Leatherbarrow said that the trust had given assurances that 900 staff being transferred would have 25 years’ protection under TUPE regulations.
But she added: “We know they are not in a position to keep that promise.”
She also told delegates that the strikers had let patients know that their action was a last resort. “It’s good to know they are backing us.”
Introducing the motion, Daniel McGuire of North Yorkshire local government branch said that wholly owned subsidiaries “are an issue for all of us… they are not about improving services, but cutting costs and a race to the bottom in terms of our members’ terms and conditions.”
The result would be a two-tier workforce and “a recipe for chaos”, he said.
One speaker said the trusts were “making savings off the backs of our members” and were using wholly owned subsidiaries to undermine national agreements and access to pension schemes. Another said that the new companies “are taking us back 25 years and beyond”.
Delegates called on the national executive council to:
- work with the health service group, Labour Link and other appropriate parts of the union to oppose these moves at every level;
- campaign nationally against new NHS arms-length companies as a real privatisation threat;
- campaign to close the VAT tax loophole to raise funds for public services;
- work with the health service group in supporting local negotiations;
- support local branches involved in campaigns.