The Barts Health Victory Is a Blow to the Outsourcing Agenda

This month, workers who were outsourced to Serco won a spectacular victory ensuring 1,800 staff would be brought in-house on NHS contracts – a blow to the outsourcing agenda across the economy.

(Unite the union)

‘This is a fantastic win for workers on such low pay, the cleaners and porters who people often forget about. They’re unseen—people don’t talk about them. They talk about the nurses and doctors, but these people are the ones who make the hospitals a safe environment for our friends and families and loved ones.’

These are the words of Unite regional officer Tabusam Ahmed, who is bursting with joy after an insourcing victory at one of the UK’s largest NHS trusts, Barts Health. 1,800 outsourced workers employed by outsourcing giant Serco will now be brought back into NHS employment.

It’s a landmark victory—not only for the workers, who have had to endure horrific pay and degrading conditions despite carrying out exactly the same work as their in-house counterparts, but for other workers up and down the country who have also been failed by outsourcing and privatisation, and to whom this victory gives hope. And at a time when the cost of living crisis means millions are struggling to make ends meet, we need both hope and vindication that collective struggle against exploitative bosses can and will lead to change.

The win comes after a two-week strike by hundreds of outsourced staff members at Barts—mainly Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) people—who were being paid up to fifteen percent less than directly employed NHS staff for the same job, and who were at first offered a measly pay rise of one percent this year, before it increased to three percent. Serco, meanwhile, paid its top two executives £7.4 million in 2021.

‘Most of them were either working double shifts or doing two jobs. It’s a constant struggle,’ says Tabusam. ‘Not being able to see their families, having to rely on the goodwill of family and friends to look after their kids, they could just about meet their rent and put food on the table. You wanted to fight for these workers.’

The low pay and heavy workloads weren’t the only problem: there was also an alleged issue with the bullying of staff, which Tabusam says she and others raised a number of times, with, at first, little response. ‘Our members were treated unfairly. There was a lot of favouritism, and there was discrimination between people who are on Agenda for Change [NHS] terms and conditions and those on Serco contracts.’

On Agenda for Change conditions, Tabusam explains, workers would receive between 1.5 and two times pay for overtime. ‘Serco colleagues didn’t get that, so they would give more overtime work to Serco colleagues but more jobs to Agenda for Change. It was unfair treatment across the board.’

One of those affected, Sandra, says that the pay left her struggling to feed her family, let alone send money back home. ‘It had a huge impact on us. By the time the month ends, you have to go into your overdraft,’ she says, adding that she knew many colleagues who had to work multiple jobs just to survive. ‘It shouldn’t be like that. They gave one person the workload of two people, and it was increasing constantly. And because it’s private, you can’t compare Serco to the NHS. Working with private companies isn’t something the NHS should entertain.’

Her sentiments are echoed by Len Hockey, secretary of Unite’s Barts Health branch and convenor for Unite’s Serco members across Barts. ‘We wanted equality of treatment with our colleagues who are directly employed, undertaking the roles of porters, cleaners, security guards, reception staff, and back of house catering workers,’ he explains, adding that the up to fifteen percent pay gap translated into earnings of up to £2,800 less for outsourced workers.

‘The other dimension to this was around workload and bullying and misapplication of policies and procedures,’ he continues. ‘Outsourcing, I would say, is an inherently racist construct. It impacts those workers who are among society’s most oppressed, and it disproportionately impacts women workers, too. Ultimately, it’s about dignity and respect.’

For Len, the responsibility for fixing this problem doesn’t just lie with Serco—it also lies with Barts, to whom, he says, workers made clear on a number of occasions that they deserved to be brought back in-house. ‘It’s a choice that the Trust made. I’ve worked here at Whipps Cross [Hospital, part of Barts Health NHS Trust] for thirty-three years, and we’ve had a number of contractors—and unfortunately, with privatisation, it’s always the case that it fails workers. In my view, it fails patients too.’

In light of this victory, then, what advice would Len pass on to other workers looking to fight the mistreatment that comes alongside outsourcing? ‘If you organise together, if you have discussions, if you recruit workers and build, you can win,’ he says. ‘It’s thanks to the determination and the will to win among the workers themselves and among their reps over a long time that we got there in the end. You can win if you organise and fight.’

Sandra says that upon learning the news that she was going to be directly employed by the NHS, and covered by the same rights as other workers, she couldn’t stop herself crying tears of joy.

‘When we won, we were totally surprised. Sometimes we felt like we couldn’t do it, like it wasn’t going to work. But as time went on, we realised our power. It’s a big and historic win, and I’m proud to be among those who won it.’

Her pride was echoed in the chant heard on the Barts workers’ picket lines—chants that served as a reminder of just how much strength workers have.

‘Who has the power? We have the power. What kind of power? Union power.’