East Kent Hospitals estates staff transferred to new company despite 5 days of protest action

Striking hospital estates workers and Unite members with support from SONiK Photo John Gibson

Estates staff at East Kent Hospitals, including QEQM in Margate, have today (October 1) been transferred to a subsidiary company despite five days of strike action in protest at the move.

Some 250 NHS estates, procurement and facilities services staff have been moved to new social enterprise company 2gether Support Solutions.

East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust (EKHUFT) announced the formation of the new organisation in May. It began trading on August 1.

Cleaning, catering and portering services in East Kent Hospitals, run by Serco, were the first to transfer with 850 staff. Now 250 NHS staff, who are responsible for maintenance of hospital buildings and grounds and include carpenters, joiners, plumbers, electricians and gardeners, are also part of the new company.

More than 50 estates staff affected by the transfer are members of Unite union, and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the strike action which took place from September 24-28.

NHS staff will have their NHS terms and conditions of employment protected under TUPE law (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)). Any new staff will be on different terms and conditions.

Photo John Gibson

Unite said the plan by East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust to move the staff to a wholly owned subsidiary, 2together Support Solutions, is a tax avoidance move.

A number of NHS trusts are forming wholly owned subsidiary companies so that they can register for VAT exemption and compete on a level playing field with commercial competitors. Private suppliers are able to register for VAT exemption for their work in the NHS. NHS trusts are not able to claim the exemption.

EKHUFT says transferring services into the NHS wholly-owned company will allow support services to remain in the NHS family and enable the teams currently employed by different organisations to work together more efficiently.

But workers who took part in the strike say they want the services retained by the NHS. Protesters at The Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital (QEQM) stood on the picket line at the St Peters Road entrance from Monday to Friday and were joined by supporters from Save Our NHS in Kent (SONiK).

QEQM Hospital estate worker and Unite the Union Shop Steward, Chris Gibbs (pictured above), said: “There’s so many people here who are good people who have worked for years for this trust and this is how they treat us. This is why we’ve taken this action and it’s not an easy decision to take.”

More than 50 members across East Kent Hospitals in Margate, Canterbury and Ashford went on strike.

Kathy Walters, officer for Unite the Union South East Region said: “These workers are being transferred against their will into a private company. It’s so worrying this is happening all across the country. This is the beginning of the end for the NHS. People have seen the slogans and the banners and marches for Save Our NHS and this is how it’s happening. It has to stop right now.

“These kinds of decisions are being taken on a purely financial basis. It’s nothing to do with protecting our NHS in fact it’s the exact opposite. Who wants us to move over to a private healthcare scheme when our NHS is the absolute envy of the world?”

SONiK activist Ian Venables, who spent time on the Margate picket line on four of the five days, said: “This is the privatisation of the NHS. It’s death by a thousand cuts. They sell off our hospital services bit by bit until there is nothing left in public hands. These workers have been here before and it was a disaster, costing the NHS millions.”

The strike action was also supported by South Thanet parliamentary candidate for Labour, Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt (pictured above with Chris Gibbs).

She said: “‘As a Unite member, I was proud to support the strike by estates workers at QEQM. There is legitimate concern that the move of staff into a ‘wholly owned subsidiary’ will lead to worse terms and conditions for workers and represents privatisation by stealth. This leads to a potential loss of accountability in the NHS and compounds the fears of people in Thanet who are already facing the threatened loss of stroke services at QEQM.”

County councillor Karen Constantine (pictured above), who sits on the authority’s health scrutiny committee, says the move allows the trust to employ new staff on a lower salary, with less secure terms and conditions.

She added: “This week there have been perturbing reports of operations at QEQM being cancelled due to problems with operating theatres. I’ve been told of smoke in operation theatres. If true, I can imagine the frustration for staff and patients alike. It’s no way to run a public health service. While trust managers look for schemes that will slash costs, the inconvenience and misery of Thanet residents requiring treatment just gets worse.

“The maintenance team that withdrew their labour are every bit as essential to the smooth running of the hospital as doctors, nurses, reception staff and managers. Without this whole team of staff, all working together, nothing works.”

Ken Thomas one of the men on strike told Cllr Constantine: “I’m doing this to save jobs for the future, to fight for a pension, paid holidays, sick pay. My wife is a senior carer, she supports me because she knows at my time of life, although I have the right experience, starting off with a new company could mean losing all the benefits. She also supports me because we both believe in the NHS.”

Cllr Constantine also spoke with striking worker Rodney Goldfinch, who told her: “I’m sick of being kicked. Managers seem unconcerned. Everyone in the team does their best but we feel very undervalued.

“Doctors and nurses are always in the limelight. We supported them. But we have the hospital to run. We have a 150 toilets to keep running, macerators on every ward, thousands of taps, legionella duties, hundreds of showers, the car parks and the NHS accommodation block. We do it all, we take on extra, we chip in to help out. It’s time we were valued.”

Cllr Constantine has written to Craig Mackinlay MP and Paul Carter, Leader of Kent County Council, about the issue and also raised it with  Jon Ashworth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

She said: “The truth is that, whilst we have a Government hell bent on profiteering at the expense of public health, we need always be fighting, striking, demonstrating or simply voicing our objection. Do nothing and we lose our NHS. Doing nothing is not an option.”

‘Direct control’

An EKHUFT spokesperson said: “Setting up our own NHS  wholly-owned company, 2gether Support Solutions, which is based in east Kent, employing local people, gives the local NHS direct control and accountability of these important services.

“The Trust Board has given 2gether Support Solutions a 25-year contract to provide services to the Trust which removes the need for the Trust to return to the market every seven to ten years, giving greater certainty to staff.

“850 staff have transferred from the private sector into the NHS company and the lowest paid staff have already had a pay increase to £8 an hour.

“We have confirmed NHS staff who are transferring to 2gether Support Solutions do so on their existing terms and conditions, this includes pay, annual leave and access to the NHS pension scheme.

“We have also agreed that NHS staff transferring into 2gether Support Solutions will receive the NHS three year pay deal, and we have committed to future Agenda for Change pay agreements for NHS staff that transfer.

“Savings the company makes will be invested in frontline clinical services, the social enterprise and its staff.

“From the beginning of the process, the Trust has engaged with Unite and staff, in a transparent and accountable process and we have always maintained that it has been integral to the Trust’s plans that the Estates department would form part of 2gether.”