Glasgow homeless service workers fight back

Author: 

Terry Elliot

Worse working conditions for the workers. And a worse service for clients.

That’s the result of Glasgow City Council putting its homelessness outreach support services out to tender, and cutting from five to two the number of organisations supporting homeless people transitioning into settled accommodation.

Workers who were transferred into Loretto Care, one of the two successful bidders, earlier this year found themselves moved from fit-for-purpose workplaces into an empty shell – no office furniture and no IT equipment – on a remote industrial estate.

On their first day as Loretto Care employees, transferees, were instructed to apply for an entire year’s Annual Leave. They were also instructed to sign up to a Communicare phone system, a thinly disguised tracking system for workers out visiting clients.

The rejection of applications for flexible working, when management failed to follow required procedures, was another source of discontent. So too were problems which staff encountered in claiming travel expenses.

Despite the protection supposedly provided by TUPE Regulations, Loretto Care announced a cut in Annual Leave for its new staff from 37 to 34 days a year.

But staff transferred into Loretto Care were quickly integrated into the prevailing workplace culture. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of management bullying.

The result: threats of disciplinary action, actual disciplinary proceedings, an increase in sickness absences, and resignations.

Loretto Care’s authoritarianism towards its own workers was combined with, at best, incompetence in service provision.

Interpreters were not booked for client appointments when needed. Workers were provided with incomplete files for their clients, or no files at all. Last-minutes cancellations or postponements of appointments became increasingly common.

Consistency of client support went out of the window as workers were withdrawn from their current clients and transferred to work in different geographical areas.

In early May Loretto Care imposed a new shift system, covering 8.00am to 8.00pm, seven days a week. Most staff had previously worked nine to five, five days a week, with voluntary overtime covering any service provision needed outside of those hours.

The new roster impacted negatively on family and social life, especially for younger workers. The long daily working hours and the irregularity of the working pattern also impacted negatively on health, especially for older workers.

There was no increase in pay for working these anti-social hours.

Given the lack of client demand for home visits in the evenings and at weekends, staff were ‘encouraged’ to ‘encourage’ clients to request appointments at these times. But to no avail.

The result: staff now have to spend three hours during weekday evenings, and nine hours on Saturdays and Sundays, sitting around in the office, instead of spending time on supporting clients on weekdays.

Loretto Care’s attacks on working conditions led most transferees to join Unite, the recognised union. A collective grievance lodged on the first day of employment with Loretto Care and signed by most transferees pushed management onto the defensive.

The new rosters imposed in May, for example, were originally due to be introduced at the end of March. The imposition of new duties, such as toilet-cleaning, was also blocked. And there was a more positive response to applications for flexible working.

The momentum achieved by the grievance and the partial retreat forced on management was dissipated when a Unite full-timer argued against calls for a strike ballot, and then substituted an all-staff meeting with management for a members-only union meeting.

But now there is a chance to rebuild the momentum and mobilise for a strike ballot. Loretto Care has tabled a pay offer of just 1%. Unite has officially recommended rejection and is calling for a 3% rise.

The pay demand should be expanded to include: working no more than one weekend in eight; an equivalent cut in evening working; nor more than three staff working an evening or a weekend; extra payments for anti-social hours.

A win on these issues would also be a major defeat for the management culture of bullying and intimidation.

It is wrong that any care provider routinely exploits and abuses power in relation to its workers. But there is something doubly wrong about a care provider who just doesn’t care about its workers or service-users – and, instead, cares only about power and profit.