t is 10am on a Saturday morning and Whitechapel High Street in London is even busier than usual. A long, slow-moving stream of people snakes past the lines of stalls selling saris and Tupperware, and a circle of dancers has formed around a boombox playing Bob Marley. If it were not for the sea of signs saying “No racism in the NHS”, “Slippery #Serco” and “We’re cleaners, not dirt” bobbing to a constant chorus of “Low pay, no way”, the scene could be a carnival. In fact it is the fifth day of the biggest cleaners’ strike in British history, due to end next week, which has seen 750 of London’s lowest-paid workers take action against one of the country’s wealthiest corporations.
The high spirits are suddenly punctured by outbursts of rage as the crowd gathers outside the Royal London hospital, one of four hospitals where staff are involved in the strike against the outsourcing giant Serco. The company was recently awarded the £600m domestic services contract for Barts Health NHS trust, which runs the Royal London alongside St Bartholomew’s, Mile End, Whipps Cross and Newham University hospitals.
One of the strikers is Adwoa Bema, 52, who came to London from Ghana in the 80s and worked cash-in-hand cleaning jobs until she got a job at the Royal London 12 years ago. “I’ve cleaned all my life. I know what it’s like to work hard, but this is just too much. Some days I feel like I’ll drop dead if I carry on.” From Monday to Friday, Bema wakes up at 4am for a 5am start at her first job cleaning an office. When the staff start to arrive at 7.30am, she heads to Whitechapel to start an eight-hour shift. “I still live in my overdraft – we all do. All we can afford to do is eat and pay rent and bills.”
When Serco took over the Barts Health contract in April, it agreed to pay all workers the London living wage of £9.75 an hour, but due to rapidly increasing living costs, many still have to take on a second job. Unite members, employed by Serco as domestic staff, porters and security workers at the trust, want a 30p an hour wage increase; that has been rejected.
Serco’s contract director, Phil Mitchell, says that the living wage increase “resulted in an average increase in pay of 3.5% for over 140 permanent staff”. He adds that for staff on higher salaries, “we have protected all their terms and conditions and offered a pay increase for this year which is in line with other NHS colleagues”.