Unite the Union members of the Gibraltar Health Authority workforce will stage a walkout tomorrow afternoon over longstanding concerns regarding the reliance on supply workers.
According to a Unite bulletin circulated amongst members yesterday, “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 stated.
Additionally, Unite claims 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.
According to Unite official Luis Gonzalez the decision to walk-out will “send a point across” over the concerns of the workforce in respect of the ‘ever-growing agency influence’ within the GHA.
But Unite’s stance and the contents of its bulletin was met with surprise by the Gibraltar Government and the GHA.
In a statement issued yesterday evening the Government said that any suggestion that it would be involved in privatising the GHA or any aspect of the health services is untrue, unfair and unjustified.
Unite members are being entirely misled, if that is what they have been informed, it added.
The Government has asked Unite to clarify what vacancies, it says, have not been filled, or have been filled by agency staff.
At the time of issuing its statement, the Government said it had yet to receive a reply.
“Further to the GHA and Unite the Union Joint Press Release issued on the 25 September 2017, Government notes, that in addition to the 81 posts which had been successfully regularised, a total of 57 adverts have been issued in respect of medical, nursing, ambulance service, allied health professional, consultant and non-consultant hospital doctor posts.”
The Government added that the staffing levels at the GHA have never been higher, with an increase in overall staffing levels rising by over 25 % during the last six years.
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.
Additionally, the Government further confirmed that in the GHA, agency workers are only used for long term absences and maternity cover.
“The Ministry for Health, Care and Justice and Unite officials and staff representatives have met on no less than 86 occasions since January 2017 in what it has thought, until today, to have been a good and positive working relationship.”
“These meetings have lent themselves, in no small way, to resolving all issues brought to the table, to date.”
“The number of meetings does not include the numerous phone calls and impromptu meetings at Unite’ request.”
According to the Government, the Ministry has always adopted an engaged and transparent relationship with Union officials and staff representatives.
It added that a walk out in the health services is a potentially hugely disruptive action with potentially dangerous consequences for patients.
“This action has nonetheless not been raised with Government before and has not been balloted by the GHA members.”
“It is therefore highly regrettable and wholly unnecessary.”
In a statement Independent MP Lawrence Llamas said it is incumbent on the Government to act now and tackle these concerns in a considered, fair and reasonable manner.
He further called on the Government to come clean and explain the reasons for its decisions, and face the necessary scrutiny that comes with such important policy shifts.
“After all, there is a lot to explain when a supposedly socialist labour government, is accused of privatising the health service through the back door,” Mr Llamas said.
According to Mr Llamas, who cites representatives of the Union, the straw that broke the camel’s back has been the decision by the Government to fill a permanent post at the hospital with a supply worker recruited via one of the labour supply agencies.
This latest move represents a breach of the agreement arrived at by the Government and the Union that agency workers would only be used to cover for long-term sickness and maternity leave – not vacant posts.
Mr Llamas explained that “the concern of the union in this regard is that what the Government is effectively doing is privatising the health service by the back door.”
“The Government would therefore do well in providing step by step briefings as to how it intends to manage vacancies as and when they arise in order to avoid escalating tensions and further dampen employees’ morale,” he said.
“This has real consequences on patient care, the primary area of concern for the union and the community at large.”
Mr Llamas further explained that “there are further concerns that agency workers are simply not as qualified to perform the role they have been engaged to do. The fact that the vacancies are not properly advertised fuel these worrying concerns amongst staff members, creating a negative and toxic environment.”
“The Union is also, rightly in my view, concerned about the impact on the rights of these supply workers, workers who can be told to come and go from their posts without notice or regard for their interests/rights, simply because the GHA is not the employer and the labour supply agency is merely required to provide the service.”
“This gives rise to a potential for what some describe loosely as exploitation of those supply workers, giving way to a high turnover of staff at the hospital and elsewhere, something that should be avoided in the interests of continuity of care.”
“It is, I have to say, quite surprising that we are seeing more and more of this kind of activity going on with a GSLP/Liberal Government in office, a Government which one would expect would be especially determined to protect and advance workers’ rights to the fullest extent possible.”
Mr Llamas added that Unite had decided on the next steps in terms of tackling these longstanding issues and the concern that they are simply not being dealt with.
Union representatives have explained that the last walkout was averted only by means of a commitment made by the Government to engage the Union and to tackle some of these issues.
However, many of these issues continue to remain unresolved, he said.
Mr Llamas concluded by saying that “the decision to stage a walkout that has been agreed by Unite’s shop stewards in their meeting today is symbolic of the apparent poor lines of communication between the Government and the Union.”