Karen Crossland has dedicated her working life to keeping patients at Bradford Royal Infirmary safe from infection. Thirty years ago, she made a deliberate choice to join the NHS, “to be part of something that matters”.
Now, aged 56, and after three decades of gruelling shift work, she’s fighting for the NHS’s survival.
“I want to work for the NHS, not some tin pot private firm who, in 12 months’ time, can sell us to another tin pot private firm,” she says.
Karen is one of 300 porters, cleaners and security staff working for Bradford Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust who this week took to the picket lines at BRI and sister hospital St Luke’s.
Despite having thousands of years experience and loyalty between them, they are being privatised and will soon have to hang up their NHS uniform.
This is the thin end of the NHS-privatisation wedge, where management come for the lowest-paid first.
Karen says: “As soon as privatisation was mentioned the first thing I asked was ‘will there be new uniforms?’, because that’s when they replace the logo. That’s what they’re doing, they’re selling us.”
Like many here, Karen thinks auxiliary staff have been deliberately targeted. “They’ve gone for us because they think we’ve got nowt between our ears,” she says.
“They think they can replace us, pick people like us up ten a penny, but they can’t.”
Since the hospitals trust introduced plans to make some staff part of a new private company from October 1, support from doctors and nurses has been overwhelming.
Today, at the ward windows, patients can be seen cheering the strikers on, while passing ambulance drivers beep in solidarity.
Yesterday staff morale was further boosted by a visit from Jonathan Ashworth, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, and local Labour MP Naz Shah.
“There’s an amazing spirit here on the picket line at Bradford Royal Infirmary,” Ashworth says.
“I’m fully behind Unison members taking strike action against backdoor privatisation. Cleaning, catering, portering and security staff are just as much part of the NHS team as medics and nurses. I hope Bradford hospital backs down on this proposal like other hospitals have.”
Wilfred Uberas, 45, has been a domestic worker at the hospital for 17 years, after leaving home in the Philippines to join the world-famous NHS.
“Working for the NHS is an honour,” he explains. “It is a one-of-a-kind in the world. In the Philippines if you can’t afford healthcare you are dead. The UK is so lucky to have the NHS, but it should not be privatised.
“First they are coming for the domestics, the porters, then next it will be nursing assistants, nurses, doctors… we cannot let that happen.”
In 30 years of service, colleague Sharon Widdop, 56, a domestic, has never been so worried about her future. She is with her wife, Sheena Walker, 56, a porter who she met at the hospital.
“It can be a hard job, but we do it because we love it and because we care,” she says.
Holding a placard beside them is another porter, John Smith. At 66, the former miner and soldier should be retired, but he loves his job too much.
“I’m going nowhere,” he says. “I’m proud to put on my NHS shirt every day and I get pleasure out of helping patients. You might take someone to theatre then a few weeks later you’re there when they’re walking out.”
Now he feels betrayed. “I feel like we’re seen as the lowest of the low,” he says.
Where other NHS trusts have backed down on privatising ‘auxillary’ services, Bradford appears determined to push on. Acting chief executive John Holden says “doing nothing” wasn’t an option.
“Our Trust will be the sole owner of the company – there is no external shareholder,” he says. “We will never “sell off” the company – it will always be 100% owned by the NHS. We explicitly decided against outsourcing these services because we wouldn’t be able to retain the same level of influence over the service or guarantee protection for staff terms and conditions long-term.
“We will offer the same package (terms and conditions) to any new starters once the company is set up. We will not allow a ‘two-tier workforce’. Our commitment to staff is unwavering.”
Unison believes these assurances could easily be broken. And as passers-by shout their support, regional Unison rep Natalie Ratcliffe says there is no sign of the dispute ending soon.
“The people here are the grassroots of the NHS,” she says. “They’re all passionate about their jobs, the NHS and patient care. They deserve better.”
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