Published: 07/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5808 Page 7

A trust at the centre of a row over the 'exploitation' of contracted portering, catering and cleaning staff has admitted the 'justice' of their fight for a major improvement to pay and conditions.

Last week, the board at Homerton University Hospital trust received a 620-signature petition signed by cleaners, hospital medical staff, unions, voluntary organisations and church groups calling for pay rates to be raised to£6.30 an hour to prevent workers falling below the poverty line.

The petition, organised by The East London Communities Organisation, reflects the growing unrest of an estimated 1,400 contracted workers across five London trusts, who say they have been exploited since cleaning services were contracted to ISS Mediclean.

TELCO says that despite reduced cleaning costs delivered through public-private partnerships, both service standards and staff pay and conditions are falling far below acceptable levels.

ISS Mediclean currently has an estimated 70 contracts with trusts across the country.Whipps Cross University Hospital trust, another trust targeted by TELCO, says that while its standards have improved since Mediclean took over the contract, it is failing to 'clean sufficiently to control a range of infections'. There is also concern about the 'serious effect' when service levels drop.

A trust report, published in February, concludes: 'The view of trust contract services staff and most ward managers is similar, in that this contract cannot provide the levels of cleaning that are essential for a satisfactory environment and for the control of infection.'

The report goes on to blame low pay for poor staff-retention, which is responsible for the 'most obvious' areas of under-performance.

For Homerton, though the board claims it wants to improve pay and conditions for cleaning staff, the obstacle is the existing contract with ISS Mediclean and available resources.

Homerton chair Reverend Andrew Windcross told the meeting: 'I think the board as a whole do recognise the justice of this campaign.We have made that clear, but the issue facing the trust is how to finance the requests being made.

At the moment, the trust is simply unable to finance the living wage.

We are simply not in control of the budget.Most of the money is spent before we get it.'

Raising pay to£6.30 and introducing the same terms and conditions as trust staff would cost£2m, Reverend Windcross said - a cost the trust would not be able to absorb.

'With the scarce finances available and hard-pressed clinical services, this is an issue that needs a change of government policy.'

The board voted to reconsider the terms of the future contract when it is up for renewal in 2004. It is also offering to improve training opportunities for contracted staff.

Speaking after the meeting, Reverend Windcross was asked if he regretted entering into the contract with ISS Mediclean. He said:

'I regret being required by government to source out those particular services. But we had no choice.

I think the argument (for more money) has been won. But it will be up to the government to recognise the funding implications.'

Cleaner Rupert Dley, who has worked for the trust for 18 months, told HSJ: 'It is about earning a wage on which we can live.

On just over£4 an hour, that is impossible. I have a family and I work 60 hours a week in order to make ends meet. The contracts are big and we [the ISS Mediclean cleaners] just feel exploited. This is about justice.'

A spokesman for ISS Mediclean said it was proud of its reputation 'as one of the world's top service contract companies', saying it strives to ensure the best possible conditions for its staff 'within the constraints of any contract'.

He added: 'We are actively holding discussions with representatives of the trust to ensure we provide the best possible terms and conditions within any contract.'