Outsourced security guards at London’s Great Ormond Street hospital are planning to walk out for six weeks because they are being denied full sick pay and other standard NHS employment rights by a company owned by a leading Conservative donor, Michael Ashcroft.
The guards, who are employed by Carlisle Support Services, which is owned by former Tory treasurer and deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft, are desperate to be taken in-house by the children’s hospital because they fear the devastating financial consequences of falling ill. “It is hard to believe, but I do not get sick pay. What this means is if I go to work, I put myself and others in danger. If I stay at home, I don’t make rent,” said Erica Rasheed, who has been working at the hospital since March.
The world-renowned hospital’s 36 security guards are only entitled to statutory sick pay, which is just £96.35 a week, whereas NHS staff at the hospital, including in-house cleaners, get up to six months of full pay when ill.
This means the security guards have to survive on less than £14 a day if they stay away from work. They are, however, entitled to full pay when self-isolating with Covid.
“I’ve only been off one time – I have not taken any other sick leave in four years. I have to go to work when I’m ill,” said Peter Akintoye, a security guard, who has worked at the hospital since 2017. “It’s not just me – it is almost all of us. We cannot afford to be sick. We still have to come to work. We are left with no other option.”
The guards, who earn just over £11 an hour, put themselves and their families at risk during the pandemic to help medical staff, sometimes escorting infectious patients, accompanied by paramedics, into the hospital. Now the hospital is facing another wave of the virus as the Omicron variant sweeps London. “It is dangerous for us. We are on the frontline. We walk around the whole hospital and deal with parents,” said Rasheed.
The guards, who took three days of strike action earlier this month, will be walking out again in January. They claim they are being denied a range of employment rights enjoyed by their NHS colleagues, including full maternity pay, extra payments for unsociable hours and employer pension contributions. They are not paid more for working night shifts. “We are treated as second-tier staff,” said Akintoye, who has three children under nine. “There has to be some dignity and respect. It is so unfair.”
The predominantly black and Asian guards argue they are being indirectly discriminated against because the largely white in-house workforce has superior terms and conditions. They are taking the hospital to an employment tribunal. “We are looked down on because we are not white, because we are immigrants,” said Rasheed. “I don’t doubt it at all.”
Great Ormand Street staff receive eight weeks of full maternity pay and 18 weeks of half maternity pay – but the guards only get the statutory minimum, which is 90% of average earnings for the first six weeks and then no more than £151.97 a week. Rasheed, who is three months’ pregnant, dreads the prospect of having to get by on the legal minimum when her baby is born. “Now I’m pregnant I’m more worried than before. Maternity pay is worse than sick pay,” she said. “We can’t live on £650 or so a month [after six weeks] when our rent is £1,300 a month and our bills are £1,500 a month. Then there is food and transport. And stuff for the baby. We’re going to struggle. My husband will have to kill himself to find more work.”
Carlisle Support Services, which generated revenues of £65m and profit before tax of almost £1.3m in 2019, is a supplier of outsourced cleaners, guards and retail staff in the UK. Ashcroft, who lives in Belize, has ultimate control of the firm as he holds more than half of its shares.
Ashcroft, whose business empire is estimated to be worth in excess of £1.2bn, donated at least £10m to the Tories up to 2010. He has started donating to the party once more in recent years, including more than £200,000 since 2020. Ashcroft became a Conservative life peer in 2000 but was dogged by controversy about his tax status as he remained a “non dom” for 10 years, meaning his permanent home was not in the UK, so he did not pay UK tax on overseas earnings. He resigned his seat in the House of Lords in 2015 but retained his peerage.
Petros Elia, general secretary of the United Voices of the World union, which represents the guards, accused Ashcroft’s firm and Great Ormand Street of ignoring their plight. “At a time when our NHS could soon be at breaking point, the refusal to give the security guards equality with their NHS counterparts tells you all you need to know about outsourcing. It’s all about profits and saving costs at the expense of worker wellbeing,” he said.
Carlisle Support Services said the hospital’s security team’s terms and conditions of employment were transferred from the previous provider, when it took over the service in August. It said it was a large and ethical employer that recognised the right of employees to take lawful industrial action. It said the security team at the hospital earned more than the London living wage. It noted Ashcroft was not involved in any of the day-to-day operations of the company or the negotiation of client contracts. “At all times, Carlisle has and will maintain that all statutory employment provisions are offered to all employees,” the firm said in a statement.
Great Ormond Street hospital said it respected and valued the security team’s contribution, particularly during the pandemic. It said it worked with an external provider approved by the Security Industry Authority to ensure a resilient and properly regulated security service. It said it had recently invited all members of the team to a series of staff meetings to discuss any concerns.