The NI Interview
The health workers of Hillingdon
David Ransom talks to a group of women who have been
holding out against ‘slave labour’ in Britain’s health service.
In suburban West London you don’t expect to discover, in the early-morning rush hour, a dozen or so women sitting at the roadside on a circle of plastic chairs beside a white, cargo-container shelter bearing the slogan ‘No To Slave Labour!’ – or that they’ve been here for the better part of two years.
‘It’s not been easy,’ says Kamla, who used to live in Fiji. Her eyes turn from laughter to anger as she speaks. ‘People call us “Pakis” and “black bastards” as they go by. Every single day. But we’re not going to go away... They’re trying take away my worker’s rights, my trade-union rights, my woman’s rights and my human rights.’
The origin of her anger lies in a desolate and hideous concrete building behind the trees – the Hillingdon Hospital. She started work there in 1967. Now, together with 53 other women workers in the National Health Service (NHS), she’s been locked out.
‘People think this is a civilized country,’ says Malkiat Bilku, whose ancestors lived in East Africa. Physical and emotional exhaustion are etched into the features of her face. ‘But this is not civilized, it is slave labour. We’ve been treated like livestock... But we are human. Everyone in this world who is human knows what this means... We are very proud to be defending all working-class people and the National Health Service.
‘We’ve met people from all over the world who are supporting us: from Russia, India, South Africa, America, Germany – even Winnie Mandela! They know we are low-paid workers. They know we are mostly Asian workers. But the point isn’t that we’re Asian, black, white, women or whatever. This is a struggle of workers against greedy bosses.’
photo by DAVID RANSOM
The trouble began as long ago as 1986. Some 320 ‘domestic’ staff at the Hillingdon Hospital one day found themselves employed not by the NHS but by a company called ICC. A series of NHS reforms had been introduced by the Thatcher Government – it was still politically inadvisable to launch a frontal assault on the principles of the NHS itself – which imposed the ‘contracting out’ of specific services, like catering and cleaning, to the lowest bidders in the private sector. ‘They thought that the people could do more work for less wages,’ says Malkiat Bilku. In the process the staff lost sick pay, bonus and pension rights.
In 1989 another company, Initial, took over the contract and cut working hours. The number of staff fell to 220, though the work remained the same. Then, in 1994, the contract was passed on again, this time to Pall Mall, part of the Davies Group international conglomerate, which proposed a 20 per cent wage cut.
You could say of the whole of this process, and without much fear of contradiction, that greater ‘efficiency’ at the Hillingdon Hospital was being paid for straight out of the purses of these women – already among the lowest-paid in the country. To increase its efficiency still further, the hospital also announced that it would refuse admission to patients aged over 75.
Then Pall Mall went one step further. The company demanded the women’s passports – an intimidatory move, questioning their immigration status – and presented individuals with new contracts. ‘They told us, if you don’t sign this, you’ve got no job,’ says Malkiat Bilku. ‘We’d already had our wages cut, we’d already been transferred to a private company. We did not refuse to work. We did not even ask for more money. We did not ask for anything. And they asked for our passports and they wanted to force us to accept.’
The 53 women refused to sign the new contracts and were duly locked out. In October 1995 the strike began, reluctantly supported by their union, Unison, which is now the largest in the country. Subsequent negotiations between Unison officials and Pall Mall produced a cash offer of $500 for each of the women as ‘compensation’ for the loss of their jobs.
‘We are fighting for jobs, not for money,’ says Malkiat Bilku. ‘We want our jobs back on the same terms and conditions. That’s what we’re fighting for. That’s our bottom line.’ So Unison withdrew official support and from January 1997 stopped issuing strike pay.
‘We appreciate all the support we’re getting, and we’re very proud of it,’ continues Bilku. ‘But now we need money to keep on going, to win this dispute. If Unison thinks, with no money and no strike pay, these ladies are going to leave the place – no way! We are fighting for the working class all over the world, in every country. We are giving an example to other workers, how they have to fight. We are very strong. We are not going anywhere. We are staying here.’
The irony is that, largely because of its behaviour at Hillingdon, Pall Mall has been losing numerous NHS contracts – much to the benefit of those who might otherwise have had to work for them, but not of the strikers themselves. Meanwhile the benighted Hillingdon contract has been passed on yet again, this time to Granada, a prominent money-spinner in the catering and media trades.
It’s beginning to rain. A tall, elegant and elderly gentleman slowly crosses the road towards the ‘ladies’. He smiles and is warmly welcomed. In his hand is a plastic bag containing sweets and fresh pears for the women. He comes here every day. ‘These are wonderful people,’ he says. ‘I admire them so much. They are putting us to shame. This is how all of us should be conducting ourselves. With pride and determination.’
HSSC (the Hillingdon Strike Support Committee) can be contacted c/o 27 Townsend Way, Northwood, Middx HA6 1TG, UK.
© Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997