Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The agency of NHS agency workers

The NHS is the biggest political issue in the country today. Labour, the party traditionally associated with the creation of the national Health Service seems hell bent on taking it apart.

Hewitt seems additionally concerned that health workers are not angry enough yet and so has been stirring it with bizarre statements like this is the "best year ever for the NHS" in the midst of lay offs, the closure of services and wards, and a whole number of trusts around the country just simply bemused as to how they are going to cut the required millions from their budgets.

Personnel Today did a survey of 200 NHS Human Resource directors and whilst finding that many trusts have escaped without too much injury because the deficits are concentrated in a large minority of NHS trusts others "are freezing vacancies, redeploying staff to other roles or organisations, redesigning roles, and reducing the use of agency and temporary staff." (1) to avoid redundancies.

7,000 jobs have already been lost in England alone, with a further 13,000 predicted, so it's hardly surprising that Hewitt has had a hard ride with the RCN and Unison conferences this week. Some nurses have even been talking of strike action. Don't worry though, laid off in England? Labour's Andy Kerr says get on your bike to Scotland and fill their vacancies, lucky you. (2)

In some quarters the blame has been laid at the door of wage rises, but headline grabbing salaries of a handful of GPs have obscured the fact that the majority of NHS workers are on the lowest pay grades and are paid a pittance.

It's the priorities of the government that is part of the problem. For instance, the number of managers in the NHS has doubled in the last ten years (
3) frankly that's twice as many people to bully, obstruct and irritate the workforce, not helpful. But the largest area of growth in government spening in the NHS has been in drugs and the private sector.

One pound in every eight that the NHS goes tot he drug companies. Let's nationalise these drug cartels which would simultaneously cut the drugs bill and remove the privateers from decisions about what drugs, if any, a patient requires.

The money going to private companies to supply pay roll services, catering, maintenance et al is a disgrace when they are providing services that were all previously done in house at less cost with the erosion of working rights. Then add on the money for the PFI and other part privatisation projects up and down the country that seemed such a good idea to local authorities at the time to get a quick fix investment - but then the loan shark is on your back for decades.

This process is not abating but continuing. For instance the NHS Logistics Authority which organises supply of food, blankets and medical equipment was announced in early April (4) sold off to a US company, Novation, that is currently being investigated by ther Senate for dodgy practices.

One area of this crisis that has been largely ignored though is that it's the most vulnerable workers who get given the elbow first. I am referring here to agency workers. When HR managers say they are going to reduce the "use" of agency and temporary staff it sounds innocuous we're talking about lay offs that don't appear on any balance sheets.

It may surprise some to learn that agency workers are not doing it for a hobby or to spite NHS workers. One billion pounds of NHS money goes towards the supply of agency staff - but the problem is not the staff but the fact that the government prefers to have a supply of easily discardable staff and pay the private sector a cut so they don't need to give these workers rights or security of employment.

Thousands of these workers have simply lost regular work at a moments notice over the last months but, despite being essential staff, media and government alike continue to simply regard them as expenditure. In the last twenty years we've returned to the position where hands are hired each morning at the gates of the dock. But, no, I'm, being silly. It's done by phone thse days.

The problem with being an agency worker is that you are continually aware of your lack of agency. If you annoy the manager of a unit they just don't ask you back, no disciplinary, no legal protection, nothing, which simply encourages managers to make personal decisions rather than professional ones. Got a complaint about bullying? Seen the abuse of patients? Is raising it worth losing your job over?

We should return to the position where temporary staff are seen as peripetatic and employed by the NHS as 'bank staff'. Kick these cow boy operators out of health care, not just because it would reduce cost but because it would raise the standard of care these workers can deliver and give them the kind of rights that every worker deserves.

The nurse on the left is discardable just cos she's with the agency

1 comment:

Daniel Haszard said...

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