Saturday, June 07, 2008

Fremantle care workers – why they keep on fighting

It is 15 months since Fremantle stole their terms and conditions 1 April 2007 and almost 2 years since the Fremantle care workers campaign began. The Branch has conducted a high profile campaign (reaching a global audience thanks to the efforts of LabourStart) resulting in a successful march and rally in November and a well attended meeting in the House of Commons in December 2007.

Early in 2008 Fremantle care workers had a meeting for members to discuss the future of the campaign. The message from members was clear …..
“We want back what was stolen!”
The Fremantle Stewards Committee were mandated in the meeting to meet with Fremantle to try and reach a negotiated settlement.

Unfortunately Fremantle were very clear, they were not prepared to talk about what was stolen. They believe they have already made enough concessions. (their original proposals were to reduce the hourly rate and increase the working week to 39 hours a week instead of 36 along on top of what they stole from our members last year). In effect everything they gained from Single Status was to be removed at the stroke of a pen!

Following our meeting with Fremantle it was clear members needed to be consulted. The Fremantle Stewards Committee decided to carry out a consultative ballot in May. The ballot was simple. Fremantle said they were prepared to consider reducing the Pay Freeze from 3 years to 2 years (with strings attached). The second part of their offer was to give 3 days annual leave in October 2009 in line with Governments legislation to extend annual leave by 3 days.

The Fremantle Stewards Committee made a recommendation for members to reject this offer with the understanding that rejecting the offer would mean and escalation of strike action.

Fremantles' reaction was predictably aggressive, refusing access to the workplaces and sending their own ballot paper to staff..

“So, in spite of the actions of their employer why are our members so determined not to give up hope?”

Firstly, and it can not be understated the sheer loss in income our members have had to endure has proved devastating. Over the last twelve months the numbers of staff working 60 hours a week either for Fremantle or with a second and sometimes a third employer has increased. The introduction by Fremantle of a 56 hour ‘waiver’ is evidence of the scale of the problem. We are understandably concerned about the number of hours staff are working. However we do not know how widespread this practice is which is why we have written to Fremantle, unfortunately we have not had a reply.

"Care Workers working 56+ hours a week is it safe for staff and residents? "
Is it right that care staff should have to work 56 hours or more to earn a living wage in London? Who reading this can honestly say they would feel comfortable leaving their relative in a home where such practice were common? To be fair to Fremantle this problem is widespread across Social Care provision. As a social worker I can report that very few if any of my work colleagues would feel comfortable leaving a relative in residential care. Radio Four’s Jon Manel recently reported on care for the Elderly. The government last month launched a consultation on how to fund social care. Whatever is decided surely those who must carry out the direct provision of care to the most vulnerable must be well trained and receive a living wage. It is not politicians, commissioners, service providers (well not until they find themselves in a residential or nursing home) who pay the penalty for undermining the provision of social care it is the service users and carers.

It is not just the loss in pay that accounts for why our members do not want to give up hope. It is the knowledge that if they give up their struggle they know that their Pension forecast will drop permanently. Leaving them with the added worry of how they will cope when they retire. This is something Fremantle have not really understood, instead they take refuge behind mind games with our members, accusing the branch ‘of promoting its own views’.

Such poor analysis of this campaign does note bode well, particularly in the context of future challenges facing Fremantle in Barnet. We know that this contract has led to a dispute with Barnet Council. Last year the claim was £8.672 million as it has not been resolved the claim must surely have gone above £10 million. Only three of the planned five new homes have been built. Whatever is going on behind closed doors what is certain is that the contract will surely be re-negotiated. Will the new contract bring an increase in funding for Fremantle? If not will Fremantle come back to our members for more?

No wonder our members are angry and don’t want to give up. UNISON policy is quite clear, organise to resist privatisation and defend our members against attacks on their terms and conditions. Barnet UNISON stands proudly with our member working for Fremantle and will continue to do so as long as they need our help.

John Burgess
Branch Secretary

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