More than 400 Gibraltar Health Authority workers shouted ‘Enough is enough’ from the steps outside St Bernard’s hospital yesterday afternoon as they staged a mass-walkout over the ‘backdoor’ privatisation of the GHA.
A cross-section of staff including doctors, nurses, domestic and administrative staff participated in the industrial action on the longstanding concerns regarding the GHA’s reliance on supply workers.
In lively scenes during an hour-long demonstration, staff waved Unite the Union flags, donned slogan t-shirts, blew whistles and chanted.
They brandished banners carrying telling slogans such as “No to the insidious privatisation of the GHA”, “No more lies”, “Nurses are skilled clinicians not a number” and “Deduct two hours of our pay” that in response to allegations that staff had been threatened with pay deductions for walking out.
The demonstration was attended by a full force of Unite officials, some of whom took the opportunity of addressing staff through a megaphone.
Although the Government has yet to comment on yesterday’s walkout, it has emphatically denied any suggestion that it would be involved in privatising the GHA or any aspect of the health services.
It claimed that Unite members are being “entirely misled”, if that is what they have been informed.
The GHA explained that during the process of recruitment, agency workers may have been used to bridge the gap until the post has been substantively filled, following the established recruitment process.
“Agency workers form an important and essential part on the continual delivery of services, providing cover in order to maintain the necessary and safe clinical levels of care,” it said in a statement earlier this week.
Additionally, the Government further confirmed that in the GHA, agency workers are only used for long term absences and maternity cover.
But, addressing workers in Spanish Victor Ochello, Unite the Union Gibraltar Regional Officer, indicated that it was embarrassing a socialist government is privatising the GHA through the backdoor.
Taking to the megaphone Unite official Paul Tremayne demanded to emphatic applause: “Equal pay for a good job that you’re doing, not minimum hours, not minimum wages, give them proper contracts, proper jobs and let’s make sure the future generations have full-time jobs.”
Additionally, Unite official Louis Gonzalez reiterated that the action was not directed at the agency workers insisting that it was about ‘equal pay for equal work’.
“It’s about giving them decent jobs, it’s about possibly giving the opportunity to apply for better things within the different sectors – in this case in the health sector – and for future generations to come as well,” he said.
In respect of government suggestions that a walk out in the health services is a potentially hugely disruptive action with potentially dangerous consequences for patients, Mr Gonzalez said: “We are a responsible union, we look after patients, we ensured that patient’s safety has not been jeopardised.”
Additionally, Mr Gonzalez welcomed the “massive turnout”, noting not only the sheer number of workers participating in the industrial action but also the “passion” with which they did so.
“I think it has got to the point where people have had enough,” he said.
“Unite has managed to establish a lot of things in the last couple of years or so, we have done a lot of things in conjunction with this administration to the benefit of our members within the health sector but there is still a lot to do.”
GSD MPs Daniel Feetham, Roy Clinton and Trevor Hammond joined the workers outside the hospital in a show of solidarity.
“This is not a question of using the GHA as a political football,” Mr Feetham said.
“If you’re alleging that the government is privatising the service through the backdoor that inevitably has a public interest and therefore a political interest,” he told the Chronicle.
“We would be remiss in our duty as an Opposition not to actually take it up.”
He added: “Mr Ochello has very graciously accepted in the course of his speech that the union was silent for a long period of time…but whilst the union was silent publicly it was the Opposition that was defending the rights of these workers.”
“So the Opposition is not jumping on any bandwagon at all, the Opposition is doing what the Opposition has been doing for the last three years.”
“I am here to represent the people of Gibraltar and to represent workers and to defend the rights of workers wherever I believe that those workers have been exploited,” he said.
Mr Feetham underscored that he has been highlighting issues concerning the ‘sheer volume’ of sub-contracted labour within the GHA, the Care Agency and the Elderly Residential Services for the past two years.
“It’s something that we have consistently been commenting about, something that we have been consistently concerned about not only from the point of view of the workers, who very often are in these positions for over two years some of them and longer, but also in terms of the effect that this will have on continuity of care.”
The president and vice president of the white collar union the GGCA also attended the Unite action despite having only very short notice of it.
Their presence, president Wendy Cumming explained, was “very exclusively” to support the principle that supply workers should not be covering permanent vacancies within the civil service and the public service.
A Unite bulletin, circulated amongst members earlier this week, stated: “morale has hit an all-time low within the GHA”.
After long discussions on issues affecting this department mainly agency workers taking over direct employed vacancies not being properly advertised, it has been unanimously decided to stage a walk-out on Wednesday, 25th at 2.30 p.m. in protest to this sort of action by some Senior GHA Management/Government,” the bulletin read.
Additionally, Unite claimed the workforce is greatly concerned with this being a way to privatise GHA services through the back door.
“We believe that employment should be guaranteed for future generations, within the Public Sector, so that the GHA provides the best service for our patients for now and years to come,” the union added.
Ahead of the walkout Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon called on the people of Gibraltar to stand united in support of the healthcare professionals participating in the protest.
“They are fighting to maintain standards of service and quality of employment in the public service,” she said in a statement, adding: “Our health service is being degraded by ill thought out policies and bad management.”
The back-door privatisation of the care service, together with a general policy of reducing costs by privatisation of key sectors of public service, is damaging the morale of health workers, Ms Hassan Nahon said.
In doing so, she flagged how she had broached the issue in Parliament as far back as October 2016 when she highlighted the discontent and low morale of doctors and professional healthcare workers.
“To make matters worse, this privatisation process has been executed in a manner that is less than transparent, which further raises concerns as to the motivation behind this traumatic policy shift,” she added.
“The morale of our healthcare professionals is fundamental to the quality of healthcare we receive.”
“If we are to continue to improve this -and other- vital services to the community, the conditions of our public sector workers and the general quality of our employment must be protected.”
“I therefore stand in solidarity with the GHA walkout and their workers, and urge the population of Gibraltar to do the same.”
Lawrence Llamas, also an Independent MP, similarly offered his solidarity with the workers.
The apparent breakdown between the Union and GHA management is to be regretted, he said.
“At this point in time, the community expects honest and accurate explanations, both parties simply can’t be telling the truth,” Mr Llamas added.
Industrial action, he said, is a last resort and reflects a serious escalation in tensions between the workers and management.
“The Government cannot rely on spin and general statements.”
“They must respond to the specific concerns raised by the Union and employees they represent.”
He added that the Government must provide details of the posts that are being covered by supply workers, since when they have been in those specific posts and the reasons why.
It is understood that the filling of a post in the Central Sterilisation Services Department is what has provoked the industrial action, he said adding: “In the interim, my solidarity must be with the workers.”