By Petros Elia, Co-founder and organiser, United Voices of the World
This October United Voices of the World (UVW) will coordinate ongoing and indefinite strike action across London. Strike action that will see our members – the majority of whom are migrants – enter into direct conflict with several of the capital’s biggest employers; with the largest strike set to take place at St. Mary’s Hospital where over 170 of our members working as outsourced cleaners and porters will demand that their employer - French multinational Sodexo - grant them parity in pay and working conditions with NHS staff.
UVW has years of experience in organising low-paid migrant workers, and we have seen just how big the scale of complicity is between outsourcing companies and their clients in propping up what is at its core, a racist economic model.
Our members are employed by some of the world’s biggest outsourcing companies, companies that report annual profits in hundreds of millions to billions of pounds. Yet these profits are made by paying migrant workers poverty wages and employing them on the worst terms and conditions legally possible.
In other words, the outsourcing model is inherently predatory and thrives upon creating a racialised two-tier workforce in which ethnic minority workers - and in particular ethnic minority women – are forced to bear the brunt of brazen exploitation.
When people read stories of how Harrods, Chanel, Ferrari and Topshop have been complicit in hiring migrant labourers who are paid poverty wages and enjoy little to no job security the majority are, rather cynically not that surprised. Yet what would surprise many, is the degree to which supposedly “socially responsible” employers, such as the University of London - which incidentally will experience strike action at three of its universities this October (Greenwich University, the University of East London and St. George’s University) - have also become complicit in propping up this predatory, and ultimately, racist economic model.
But nowhere would people be more alarmed to see this than in the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS was originally founded according to the principle that healthcare is a human right and not a privilege. And that as need takes priority over the ability to pay, a healthcare system should be both free at the point of use and publicly owned and funded. So as to ensure that we as a society can mutually insure one another from the risk and certainty of illness.
But from the infamous “salami slicing” of Thatcher through to the privatisation of the Blair years and the savage onslaught of austerity and privatisation unleashed by successive Conservative led governments, we have seen the erosion of this egalitarian logic.
The hostile environment policy which brought us the Windrush Scandal and has seen both British citizens, migrants and asylum seekers denied NHS medical treatment - in some cases lifesaving treatment - and is one of the starkest reminders of how the NHS is not immune from wider societal logics of racism, of which the proliferation of the outsourcing model is another symptom.
It has now become routine for NHS Trusts to outsource entire swathes of their facilities operations to outsourcing companies, meaning that taxpayers’ money is going to companies who make their profits by exploiting and mistreating primarily migrant workers. And French multinational Sodexo who has held a facilities contract with St. Mary’s Hospital since October 2014 is one of the worst offenders.
Sodexo pays the cleaners and porters who work tirelessly to keep the wards of St. Mary’s Hospital infection free an hourly rate of £6.16 - £8.21 per hour, leaving them £6K - £10K worse off per year than their NHS colleagues of a similar grade. It also employs them on the worst terms and conditions legally possible and has brazenly endangered both their safety and patient safety by refusing to comply with its legal obligation to vaccinate its workers. Yet Sodexo’s disregard for worker and patient safety does not stop there.
Our members have consistently asked Sodexo to provide them with sufficient spare uniforms so that they can wash their uniforms after a day’s work and still turn up in fresh ones the following morning. Rightly they do not expect that they should have to work in dirty uniforms and increase the risk of spreading infection on the very wards they are trying to keep clean. Nor do they expect to be paid so little and have such little job security that they have to turn up to work when they themselves are ill – and therefore risk spreading flu But in its desire to make a profit, and to pay out obscene executive pay and bonuses, Sodexo has happily endangered the safety of its workers and patients.
Recently, UVW analysed Sodexo’s Annual Reports from 2014 – 2018 which cover the last four of the five years Sodexo has held a contract with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. What they revealed was a company making staggering yearly profits – in 2018 alone Sodexo made a profit of 994 million euros – and a board of directors enjoying obscenely high annual salaries and bonuses whilst forcing our members to work in dirty uniforms for poverty wages.
Between 2014 – 2018 the now former CEO of Sodexo, Michel Landel, enjoyed an annual salary of 933,400 euros and annual bonuses equivalent to 200% of his salary. On top of this he annually received 42,000 “performance shares” which between the years 2014 – 2018 were estimated by Sodexo to have a combined value of 10,629,760 euros. And what needs to be understood is that this is not an anomaly with one greedy CEO sat at the top of a company taking more than is his fair share.
All of Sodexo’s non-executive directors have enjoyed ever increasing annual salaries worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and ever-increasing directors’ fees (in 2013 Sodexo paid out €561,840 in directors’ fees whilst in 2018 the figure stood at €879,000) during the same time in which our members have struggled to scrape a living.
Ultimately our members are not asking for the earth; they are simply asking to enjoy full equality in pay and working conditions with their NHS colleagues and that Sodexo provide them with sufficient uniforms and adhere to its legal obligation to vaccinate them. As a union we cannot stand by whilst workers are exploited and as a campaigning trade union with anti-racism at our core, we also have a duty to call out the clients of outsourcing companies for propping up a business model that is explicitly predicated upon the exploitation of migrant workers.
And this is needed now more than ever, given the toxic climate against migrants that has been created by the Brexit referendum. With even some who claim to be on the left parroting the narrative that the decline and stagnation of wages and union density over the past decades is a result of migrant labour pushing wages down. Something which could not be further from the truth: it is companies like Sodexo who push down wages, and the Left’s answer can never be turn amongst ourselves and pit migrant workers against national workers. The answer is to organise and challenge the outsourcing model head on.
The public would not take kindly to knowing that the NHS – an institution originally founded upon the principles of social solidarity and equality – is becoming complicit in paying the hardworking staff upon which both it, and patients rely, poverty wages. Our members are not the dirt they clean, they deserve better. And that is why this October they will go on strike. And you can support them by donating to their strike fund at www.uvwunion.org.uk/strikefund Read more ...