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Nearly 200 London hospital service workers will go out on strike on Monday, in a dispute which its organisers say highlights the increasingly difficult predicament of low-paid people in the capital, and problems particularly faced by women and migrant workers.
Those on strike work as cleaners and domestic staff at four mental health facilities run by the South London and Maudsley Trust: the Maudsley hospital in Camberwell, the Bethlem Royal hospital in Beckenham, the Lambeth hospital, and the Ladywell Unit at Lewisham hospital. But they are employed by Aramark, a multinational company based in the USA that also specialises in selling food and drink at American sports events.
Many of Aramark’s London hospital employees are paid £7.38 an hour, more than £2 below the London living wage set by the Greater London Authority. The workers on this pay rate also have restricted entitlements to sick pay and overtime.
The strikers are calling for changes to those conditions, and a new minimum hourly rate of £10. The GMB union has called the strike after weeks of negotiations with the company failed to result in a resolution. The stoppage will last 24 hours and end at 6am on Tuesday.
Most of the Aramark employees who have spoken about the strike and their experiences at work have insisted on remaining anonymous. The full-time GMB organiser in charge of the stoppage is Nadine Houghton, 31. “There’s a small proportion of the people who are striking who have been union members for a number of years,” she said. “But the vast majority have not been in a union, and they’ve never been on strike before.”
Houghton put the proportion of strikers who are women at around 90%. “And they’re predominantly migrant workers, from various African countries, South American countries … and there’s a couple of Eastern European workers.”
Houghton said that the workers involved in the strike are effectively divided into two tiers. Those whose began their jobs under a previous contractor have seen their pay rate rise by £1.40 over the past nine years to £7.48 an hour plus £2.06 London weighting, but they still have more generous terms than workers who have joined since Aramark became the contractor.
Most of this latter group’s hourly rate is £7.38, there is no additional payment to reflect London living costs and they are entitled to 10 days sick pay a year, which only applies after the first three days of illness. “And they don’t get any enhancements for working nights, or weekends, or anything like that,” Houghton added. The Guardian has spoken to workers whose monthly travel costs alone are £120.
Aramark’s global profits in 2015 totalled $387m (£267m), on turnover of $14.3bn.
The company has so far made the workers two offers. The first would award them an extra 5% of the company’s pay costs, to be distributed as the employees wanted. “We could have 1% for the higher-paid members and 4% for the lower-paid members, or split it evenly,” said Houghton. This proposal was rejected, as was an offer of improved sick pay terms, and a 2.5% pay rise for the higher-paid staff, with 5% for those on the lower-tier – which amounted to around an extra 40p an hour.
The GMB’s strike ballot opened around four weeks ago. The turnout was 51%, and 97% of respondents voted in favour of strike action, which means the action would clear new requirements for strike actions in the government’s controversial trade union bill, currently making its way through parliament.
As the strike date has approached, the GMB has made representations to Aramark about what it claims is victimisation of its members. Echoing claims the Guardian has heard from Aramark employees, the union has cited allegations that supervisors have told workers that overtime payments will be withdrawn if they go on strike, and made false claims about workers’ eligibility to participate.
The Guardian put these allegations to Aramark via its PR representatives, in addition to questions about the company’s unwillingness to meet its employees’ demands on pay and conditions.
A statement from the company, which is based in Philadelphia, did not address these points. It said: “Aramark is committed to treating all of its employees with respect and dignity. That includes offering competitive wages. It is disappointing that the GMB rejected our fair and comprehensive offer and that some members plan to exercise their right to action in the form of a strike. We remain intent on reaching a mutually agreed resolution … We regret in advance any inconvenience that may arise as a result of this action by the GMB.”
A spokesperson for the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust said that “it is not for the trust to take a position” on the strike. They said that staff who were not taking part would “continue to provide essential services on Monday – such as meal services and the cleaning of patient bathrooms.”
The GMB says it is prepared for more strikes if necessary. “If the company don’t come back with an improved offer than our members can accept, we’ll obviously look at escalating the action,” said Nadine Houghton. “And that’ll perhaps mean looking at a two or three-day strike in the near future. But a lot of that will rest on how much money we can raise for a strike fund.”
She went on: “Where there’s the will for union to organizers workers in these sorts of industries, it can be done. There’s something fundamentally righteous about this. We’re told that the working class is on its knees and apathetic. What this shows is that there’s a fightback still there. It gives you hope in our movement. We can still achieve things.”
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