Statement in Support of Workers at University Hospital Lewisham

Sent on the 19 March to:

Ben Travis - Chief Executive of Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust,
Keith Howard - Director of Estates, Strategy and Redevelopment
Craig Smith - Head of Corporate Affairs at ISS Facility Services, Healthcare

We are writing to commit our collective solidarity to the cleaners, caterers and porters who walked out of University Hospital Lewisham on March 12 2020 in protest against the ongoing misconduct of their employer ISS. We stand with these workers and echo their demand that Lewisham Hospital bring all facilities workers in-house.

For two consecutive months the multinational company has withheld wages from its employees, leaving many of the hospital’s lowest paid workers essentially destitute. This, during a period of increased anxiety for all Lewisham Hospital workers as the number of patients testing positive for Coronavirus grows. Amidst a complex, dangerous and developing pandemic, these workers were forced to risk everything simply to have their wages returned in full. The non-payment of these wages is not an isolated case, but is the latest in a spate of abuses perpetrated by ISS site managers. Chris Ash, Managing Director of Healthcare from ISS has apologised for what he described as an “administrative error” that impacted a “limited number of staff” and claimed that ISS has since rectified the mistake. But this apology is not enough. Had it not been for a group of highly vulnerable workers risking their livelihoods, this ‘administrative error’ would never have come to the attention of Chris Ash.

We strongly condemn the callousness with which ISS representatives are handling this situation and demand:

  • that ISS provides financial compensation for all workers affected by the extreme negligence that led to this staff walk-out.

  • that ISS revise its sick pay policy to guarantee that all outsourced staff – in the event of a suspected case of Covid-19 (regardless of symptoms) – are guaranteed no loss of pay, no detriment to their sickness and absence record and no loss of annual leave entitlement.

  • that all branches of ISS operating in the Lewisham provide a transparent account of the appropriate health and safety measures they have put in place for all its staff (including but not limited to clear information, translated in appropriate languages, protective measures, and hospital support, including sharing regular updates of local cases of covid-19 in hospitals; provision of adequate protection including masks, cleaning products, appropriate waste management processes; information about and protection from affected areas; protection from repeated exposure).

Referring to the events at Lewisham Hospital, commentators and trade union activists have made the broader point that the scale of outsourcing in the NHS has put the nation in a weak position in containing the spread of Covid-19. Roughly 40% of facilities (cleaning, portering, catering) management is outsourced in the NHS. This means that 40% of hygiene management in the NHS is controlled by for-profit subcontractors and is out of the hands of hospital operations managers. The hygiene of hospitals is maintained by these workers but outsourcing companies, driven by profit gained by driving down the quality of working conditions, make it almost impossible for workers to do their jobs properly (and safely). The outsourcing of so-called ‘soft’ facilities (cleaning, catering, portering and security) is normally justified in other business contexts as a way of releasing funds for core services. But there is no such distinction between core and auxiliary services in a context where all the work that is done is crucial to the chances of patients staying alive. The devaluation of this type of work in the NHS has cost lives in the past and will do so on an unprecedented scale in the coming months unless swift action is taken.

GMB union is demanding that all NHS trusts ensure outsourced staff are given sick pay and the ability to self-isolate in suspected cases of COVID-19. At the moment, many outsourced workers are contractually denied sick pay and as a result feel forced to come into work even when they feel ill. This is a serious patient safety issue at the best of times but in the case of a global pandemic this situation is extremely critical.

The events at Lewisham Hospital comes less than a year after a similar episode at another branch of the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich. There, cleaners, security, caterers and porters were again forced to confront ISS after another botch that resulted in severe payment delays. On this occasion workers were offered ‘bridging loans’ to cover the unpaid wages which they would have to pay back over 4 weeks. As a result, many workers, already burdened by debt, were thrust further into arrears. In both locations, GMB Southern Region union activists have been supporting workers in demanding the London Living Wage of £10.55 an hour. Currently, ISS employees at both hospitals are paid around £8 an hour and are not paid sick leave from day one.

ISS took on a seven-year contract with University Hospital Lewisham in February, taking over a total of 400 workers from the previous contractor Interserve. The company has boasted that it will invest over £4m in new equipment and technology into the hospital. But what will this investment cost in view of how ISS treats its workers? And how will deteriorated working conditions for hygiene workers impact patient recovery rates?

ISS are already following a very familiar path in their treatment of staff at Lewisham Hospital. Indeed, ISS are infamous in the Lewisham area for their complete disregard for employment standards. Another of Lewisham’s main employers, Goldsmiths, was forced to end its contract with ISS in September 2018. The inhousing of 90 cleaning staff in May 2019 highlighted a litany of abuses carried out by ISS site managers at the university.

It is our recommendation that Lewisham Council distances itself completely from ISS. The bad reputation of this employer has been proven time and again. For many, ISS cemented its pariah status in its dealings with cleaning staff at SOAS, University of London. In June 2009 the site managers of ISS at SOAS called an emergency meeting for all cleaning staff where, once inside, they were met by at least 20 immigration officers, who detained and later deported some workers. The cleaners were locked in a classroom and escorted one-by-one into another classroom where they were interrogated. They neither had access to union support nor legal representation and many were unable to fully understand what was happening due to the absence of interpreters. All of this was done as a form of intimidation and to discourage other agency workers from fighting for union representation and a living wage. The threat that ISS could at any moment perpetrate such coercive and duplicitous actions in order to create a hostile environment for workers at Lewisham Hospital must not be risked.

ISS has been embroiled in numerous controversies over the years. Cleaners on the London tube made allegations of intimidation, bullying and being threatened with dismissals whilst striking for the Living Wage. Further acts of anti-union intimidation, victimisation and employment malpractice by ISS have been recorded at branches of HSBC, Ernst & Young, various hospitals across the country, East Coast rail service and, in one of their more high profile scandals, Premier Inn, which featured in an episode of Channel 4’s documentary series Dispatches.

Managers of University Hospital Lewisham could be doing much more to reassure the public that it is dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak responsibly. Firstly it could force its contractors to properly compensate its employees for what has been a deeply traumatising experience. Secondly, in line with other exceptional measures taken by the hospital, it could insist that ISS revise its sick pay policy to guarantee that all outsourced staff – in the event of management suspecting a case of Covid-19 – are guaranteed no loss of pay, no detriment to their sickness and absence record and no loss of annual leave entitlement. And thirdly, it could assuage concerns following the recent scandal of the mass walk-out, by providing a transparent account of the measures ISS have put in place to advise and equip its staff to work safely during this pandemic period.

In the short-term, the undersigned pledge active solidarity with ISS workers at University Hospital Lewisham and are prepared to follow up on the three demands stated above with further actions if no reply is provided by ISS or University Hospital Lewisham. In the longer term, and in view of the unprecedented success of the inhousing campaign led by UVW union at the Imperial College NHS Trust, we are committed to supporting ISS workers in their campaign to be brought in-house and attain the same terms and conditions as contracted staff in the hospital.

Notable figures/organisations in the Lewisham area:

London Renters’ Union, Lewisham Branch

Justine Canady, Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, Branch Secretary

Cllr Alan Hall, Bellingham, London Borough of Lewisham

Marian Carty - President Goldsmiths UCU

Des Freedman - Vice President Goldsmiths UCU

Duncan Morrison, Branch Secretary and Assistant District Secretary, Lewisham NEU

Tony Cisse Community Organiser, Lewisham West & Penge Labour Party

Victoria Beyai - Lewisham and Deptford Labour Bame Forum Secretary

Cllr Aisling Gallagher, Lewisham Central, London Borough of Lewisham

Cllr Silvana Kelleher, Evelyn, London Borough of Lewisham

Cllr Patrick Codd, Lewisham Central, London Borough of Lewisham

Cllr Paul Bell. Telegraph Hill, London Borough of Lewisham

As well as Lewisham Residents


Lewisham Residents

Residents of Lewisham.