When organiser Carole Vallelly suggested GMB members at a local hospital sign a collective grievance against bullying at work, she was expecting a dozen or so to add their names.
So when the petition was returned with 109 signatories, she was astonished.
“I knew there were problems at the hospital, but I didn’t think so many people were going to be brave enough to sign a public document,” she says.
“A few members came to us with complaints about bullying and harassment from one particular manager, so we started looking into it for them. When the collective grievance came back we realised just how great the strength of feeling was for them to take some action and change things in their working lives.”
One of the workers prepared to speak out is Paulo Fernandez, who told UnionNews: “Every day we are afraid to go to work because whatever we do we will be threatened with a disciplinary. This is a constant threat to us – we cannot do anything right in the eyes of this manager – and before we leave home we have to prepare ourselves for this behaviour. It is very hurtful for us to get it all the time.”
The hospital is in Swindon and is run by Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. The manager works for Carillion, the private company contracted to carry out the ‘housekeeping’ work – cleaning the wards and delivering the food to patients.
Paulo, like many of the workers, is from Goa, a small state on the west coast of India. There are some 7,000 Goans living in Swindon and their sense of community has emboldened them to stand up to their employer.
“It’s impressive that these people, who feel so powerless when they’re at work, can come together and feel they have power in solidarity,” says Carole.
One of the problems faced by the workers is holidays. GMB members say there is no formal procedure for booking holidays, that it depends on the whim of the manager, and that there is a ban on taking more than two weeks’ holiday at at time.
One GMB member, who did not want to be named for fear of recrimination, told UnionNews: “This is terrible because two weeks to go to India is not enough. It takes us two days to get there and two days to get back, so we don’t have much time with our families. Also, many of us are Christians and we want to go home during the Christmas period but we are told this is not allowed. This is not fair. This is discrimination.”
Carole is also quick to relate horror stories of bullying and harassment at work.
“There are countless incidents,” she says. “There are racist remarks, intimidation – the way holiday is booked is used as a way to bully people because if they don’t do what the manager wants, they are refused their holidays. There is a real culture of bullying at the hospital, and we want to see an end to it.
As good as its word, the GMB is currently balloting its members for strike action – a decision that has filled the workers with confidence.
“We have been joined all tighter and we feel some comfort,” says Paulo. “Even our faces are smiling. We are happy with the union.”
Finally, a third worker, who did not want to be named, says: “We all joined the union to fight for our rights. We feel a lot more confident and stronger with the union backing us up. The frustration that we are suffering at the hospital bought us together and we are now united and willing to fight even to the point of going to strike if they do not listen to our grievance.”
Another worker, Jose Pereira adds: “I joined the union because I was unhappy every day. Now, day by day, the union is improving the situation.”