London: Hospital porters and cleaners on strike

Whipps Cross

Porters, cleaners and switchboard staff employed by Rentokil Initial, based at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London, have been on strike since 21st July.

An agreement over pay and conditions was made in 2003, due to come into force in April 2006, several other East London hospitals agreed to the deal, only Rentokil at Whipps Cross has failed to honour it. The pay award is roughly equivalent to a £2 per hour raise, for staff who in some cases earn as little as £5.52 per hour, the agreement also included increases in leave entitlement. Staff are on strike for the full award with pay backdated to April.

Over 300 staff are employed by Rentokil Initial at Whipps Cross, and around 270 are members of the public sector union Unison. So far there have been four days of strike action, with the strike days increasing from one to two days every other week over the past month. Rentokil has refused to discuss the deal with either the workers directly or with Unison, although some negotiations are planned with the hospital trust itself. In light of this, strike days will be increasing from 2 to 3 in the next round of action planned for 29th August, and there is likely to be all out indefinite strike action during September if no deal is made.

The dispute is restricted to Whipps Cross at the moment, since it's a local deal which only Rentokil Initial have not met. However a Unison member at the hospital told me that a national agreement is due to come into force in October, which Rentokil are unlikely to meet. This could lead to the dispute spreading nationally to all Rentokil Initial hospital staff during October.

I visited the picket line at the beginning of August and again today. At any one time around 50 or more workers have been standing at the hospital gates. I was told that daily turn out on the picket line has been consistently over 200 people per day, starting at 6am and finishing around 5 or 6pm. Just about everyone due to work has been on the picket throughout the strike, very unusual in recent industrial action. One worker I spoke to in early August said "Everyone's been out here every day, we don't expect to have an offer at all, but we'll be here again tomorrow and keep doing it as long as necessary, it's been a really good atmosphere out here". Police have visited the picket line but have largely left it alone, and have not enforced the legal limit of six people on a picket.

Only five Initial Rentokil workers employed at the hospital have crossed the line since the first day of the strike, many workers who were not members of Unison have joined the action unofficially or joined since it started. However, the company have been shipping in employees from all over London and even Brighton as scab labour, in some cases putting them up in hospital accommodation. The hospital has also used managers to cover portering services, and asked nurses and other NHS staff to take on additional duties like cleaning up after patient meals. However, there is widespread support for the strike within NHS staff employed at the hospital, and most are only undertaking extra duties essential for patient care.

At this stage, with no discussions forthcoming, it looks likely that the strike could continue into the next month or two and escalate to all out indefinite strike action. I'll try to keep up with any developments.