Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Freezing Out the Workforce

“States workers have been offered a one-year pay freeze for the year, as ministers make a quick start on trying to tackle the deficit in States finances. Unions were told on Friday that there would be no pay rises for the 7,000 States employees this year, apart from a small rise for nurses.” (Bailliwick Express)

“A pay freeze for public sector staff has been announced by the States of Jersey.The one-year settlement, discussed with unions earlier, excludes nurses and midwives.” (BBC News)

It is hardly surprising that nurses and midwives have been excluded. There is a severe shortage of nurses, despite new programmes being promoted to train up more nurses locally.

The increase for nurses is in fact modest: “All Nurses and Midwives will receive a consolidated increase in their basic rates of pay and attached allowances of 0.4% with effect 1 January 2015.”.

But I suspect that the general strategy appears to be not just a pay freeze, but also to “restructure”, much along the lines of the BBC model. Let me explain how this works.

In the past, the BBC made TV programmes. It had producers, directors, script editors who would oversee scripts, and develop new programmes. This has all changed. In fact, it was John Birt who began the change in 1992 in line with new guidelines from the government forcing it to outsource at least 25% of its production.

The BBC Television Centre increasingly became just a commissioning body, where all the administrators remained, but most of the creative staff were gone. All the creative elements – those involved with design, special effects, radiophonic workshop, composing, costumes – have all gone, outsourced along with production, the creative teams of producers and script editors coming up with new ideas for TV.

The BBC mainly buys in programmes, although some programmes can be bought in from the BBC regions, but Television Centre is no longer a central hub of front line programme makers.

I’ve outlined that development in some detail, because that seems to be to be the model the States are looking towards – administration remaining, but deciding on bids and procuring outsourcing instead. Now sometimes outsourcing can be much more expensive – nursing staff being a case in point – where there are not local suppliers at an economic rate.

But in other areas, such as cleaners, road works, garden maintenance, staff working at Bellozane and the Incinerator, I suspect there is a drive to replace the frontline staff with outsourced staff.

This is the real meaning of those key points:

“Ceasing to provide some services and redesigning others”

“Working with staff and unions to restructure the public sector”

The pay freeze while necessary as part of the desperate attempts to plug the black hole, is one part of that. Outsourcing is another, and a pay freeze also puts pressure on existing staff to leave for better paid work elsewhere, especially those on lower incomes. It is freezing them out.

Now it may seem prudent financially to outsource cleaners, but it depends where the cleaners are. But evidence is mounting that outsourcing cleaning in places like hospitals can actually prove to be detrimental to health, because they do not share the ethos of working within the institution, and the professionalism that goes with that.

As Jane Lethbridge, director of the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU, noted:

"Cleaning became very low paid. Contracting out pushes wages down, creates a high turnover of staff and problems with general recruitment. Other processes that result from outsourcing - particularly the pressure on time and the focus on specific tasks - also lead to a very fragmented way of delivering the cleaning service.”

“What is required is good teamwork between infection control teams and the cleaner. Before cleaning services were outsourced, the cleaners would have taken more time, talked to nurses, chatted to patients, and there would have been a much greater degree of teamwork in the ward and hospital.”

The result of outsourcing in the UK has been to seen rates of MRSA infections soar, and continue to remain high, even though improved practices have seen some reduction in recent years, but Scotland and Wales abandoned outsourcing gaining a considerable reduction in infection.

It was reported in the financial times this month that Serco has been stripped of work sterilising equipment at a hospital in Australia, adding to a run of botched contracts by the outsourcing provider.

In schools, however, it may be possible to make savings while outsourcing. Cleaners are not part of the core function of a school, in the same way that they are in a hospital. Context is important rather than simplistically outsourcing without looking at a wider picture than a narrow one of economy.

But even hear, determining how cleaning can be outsourced, and how this process can take place and treat existing States employed cleaning staff fairly is important. A rush to make economies should not trample over the poorer sectors of the workforce.

And finally, the States remuneration body is to make recommendations on the States own pay, including whether Ministers should be paid more than other States members. As it was Ministers who appear to have got us into this black hole, I certainly don’t think they should be rewarded for it, and as for a general increase, at a time of economic stringency, I think the States really have to lead by example rather than wringing their hands and saying the process has to be independent.

The Remuneration body may have independence, but its members were appointed by the States, and I didn’t notice any Union representatives, any elderly pensioners, or indeed any ordinary people there. Most of that august body are well off individuals, including retired States Chief officers who have little or no idea how ordinary people manage on their earnings. When the cards are stacked one way, it does not really matter how they are dealt; we know the outcome.

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