Cleaners face Covid risks for less than living wage at London Bridge Hospital, owned by US healthcare giant

HCA Healthcare was among a number of private firms to receive millions from the NHS while claiming through the furlough scheme

Cleaners at a private London hospital say they have been forced to work in Covid wards for less than the living wage during the pandemic and have also raised concerns about the PPE available.

Outsourced cleaners at London Bridge Hospital (LBH) have launched a campaign against their employers, Compass Group, and HCA Healthcare, which owns the hospital, over alleged low pay and poor working conditions.

Compass Group denies many of the workers’ allegations, saying: "We take the safety and wellbeing of our employees incredibly seriously. All our employees have access to training, appropriate PPE, uniforms or scrubs, whilst following the hospital's strict infection control policies. No employee is ever expected to work when unwell.".

Low pay and Covid concerns

Cleaners and members of the Independent Workers of Great Britain trade union are calling for an increase in pay from less than £10 per hour, and for the hospital to “immediately address” the workers’ health and safety concerns.

The outsourced cleaners, who are predominantly migrants, were paid £9.36 per hour until January 2022, despite the London Living Wage (LLW) currently being set at £11.05.

Compass told NationalWorld that "In January we awarded a pay increase to our employees, this combined with a retention bonus paid in December 2021 equates to a minimum 6% increase. This is in addition to their annual inflationary pay uplift due later this year.

They added: “We established a helping hands fund to provide grants to employees who need additional financial support as the result of the impact of the pandemic. This fund is still available, and we encourage any of our employees to reach out if they are in need of this support."

Mariana Blanco*, a cleaner at LBH said the pay is so low she has to “fight every day to support my family.”

She said: “We feel like second-class citizens here. I have asthma and my safety is put at risk every single day.” She raised concerns about safety and training equipment.

Workers report being asked to clean in wards “full of infected people” without PPE, and needing more time to wash in between moving from Covid and non-Covid wards.

As is the case with outsourced security guards at Great Ormond Street Hospital, the cleaners at London Bridge Hospital don’t get full sick-pay, unlike their in-house colleagues.

This reliance on statutory sick-pay, which is among the lowest in the G7, forces many cleaners to choose between working when they’re ill or going without essentials, particularly in the context of a cost of living crisis.

Ramona Marredo Mendez, a cleaner at LBH, says she contracted Covid while at work, then had to isolate for two weeks “without the sick pay that directly-employed workers get”.

She said: “The pay is already so low, I can’t afford to take two weeks off on £96.35 a week.

“When I asked Compass for support in accessing the statutory sick pay, they did nothing so I ended up at home for two weeks with no money.”

Workers can receive up to £96.35 per week through the statutory sick pay scheme, though this does not apply until the fourth consecutive day of absence.

A spokesperson for Compass told NationalWorld that “anyone who does have to self-isolate due to Covid receives contractual sick pay”.

Both Compass Group, which employs the outsourced cleaners on behalf of the hospital, and HCA Healthcare, which owns LBH, are multi-billion, multinational corporations.

US-based HCA reported turnover of $51.5 billion in 2020, while its UK arm claimed £3 million under the furlough scheme.

The firm was among a number of private healthcare providers that received millions from the NHS during the pandemic which are now facing calls from think tanks and politicians to repay their furlough grants.

Compass Group, a UK-based outsourcing firm, reported revenue of almost £20 billion in 2020.

‘Completely unacceptable’

IWGB is calling on the hospital to “immediately address health and safety concerns” and increase pay to £12.50/hr “with the same terms and conditions as directly-employed staff”.

The general secretary of IWGB, Henry Chango Lopez, said: “It is completely unacceptable that a multi-billion dollar company that took £190 million of NHS money during the pandemic is forcing its outsourced cleaners to work in dangerous conditions for poverty pay.

“Cleaners are key workers and they perform indispensable, risky work at London Bridge Hospital yet this majority-migrant workforce are treated like second-class citizens.

He added: “Compass and London Bridge Hospital need to give their key workers the pay, conditions, and respect that they deserve.”

A spokesperson for Compass Group said: “We are proud of our people who have worked in challenging times during the pandemic and we are committed to doing all that we can to support them and to ensure that the highest standards are upheld.

“As soon as we became aware of the concerns of three employees, we met with our team to listen carefully and discussed the points they raised. We will continue to have an open dialogue with all our employees. We have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment and would encourage anyone who has concerns to raise them either directly or via our confidential hotline.”

A spokesperson for HCA Healthcare told NationalWorld they would not be commenting on the dispute.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual