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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Uncharitable Charity

by New Worker correspondent

HOMELESS charity St Mungo’s, which has many branches in London as well as Basildon, Brighton and Bristol, is facing a strike by hundreds of staff opposing a “race to the bottom”. A three-day strike took place on Monday to Wednesday of this week.

Unite the Union warned its CEO Howard Sinclair to “stop blaming staff for your leadership mistakes” as workers began their strike.

The struggle, which has been going on over a year a variety of issues, includes a punitive sickness policy and changes it made to the junior staffing cap, which workers fear opens the door to a cheaper workforce on worse pay and terms and conditions. Safety would also be undermined.

Unite has assured clients that: “Your safety is our priority, which is why we feel so strongly about standing up to defend the services we deliver to you.”

In response to the CEO’s calls for the strike to be suspended because of the Coronavirus outbreak, Unite said that it will follow government guidance and not be bullied by Sinclair.

Unite’s regional officer, Tabusam Ahmed, said: “St Mungo’s workers have tried their utmost to arrive at a reasonable settlement with their employer and have been rejected at every turn.

“For our members the safety of their clients is their number one priority and they will take strike action with very heavy hearts, but believe it is the only way to defend the future of St Mungo’s services.

“We have warned that the attacks on jobs, the reinstatement of ‘race to the bottom’ conditions and discriminatory disciplinary procedures are putting a severe strain on staff and the services they deliver to homeless people.

“We appeal to Mr Sinclair and the board to rethink their approach, as the charity cannot function as it should do and serve those who need it, while relationships between staff and employers are stretched to breaking point.”

Unite said it will follow the ‘severe weather emergency protocol’ (SWEP) and suspend strike action should it become necessary.

A necessarily anonymous St Mungo’s worker who has worked in the sector for many years said that helping the homeless is a labour of love. “You may have a client who has a history of severe mental health issues who needs to be in a psychiatric hospital but has gone missing so we have to go out and find him. Or a woman who is in a domestic violence situation who needs to be brought to safety immediately.”

He must respond to such crises whilst also doing daily outreach shifts, which involve making contact with rough sleepers who’ve been referred to the charity by members of the public. He also noted that at St Mungo’s staff have to deal with 40 or more individuals whilst in other charities the norm is half that. He points out that: “When you work with someone who’s finally secured accommodation and they’re crying they’re so happy; or when a client beats their addiction – it really makes the job worth it.”

He accused St Mungo’s of presiding over a regime that has some of the highest rates of people off sick in the sector. It has an onerous sick policy that means once staff reach what’s called a “level 3” sickness absence they may be dismissed.

The union accused the charity of tearing up a negotiated agreement meant to protect pay, terms and conditions. A 2013 agreement to limit the ratio of junior staff to more senior staff, to ensure that services are provided by experienced workers, has been abandoned.

Last month St Mungo’s rejected a proposal made for one duty worker per three project workers, despite the tiny extra cost.

As a result the junior staff are on lower pay, and these inexperienced younger workers informally take on the work of senior staff in which they are totally out of their element. It is “blindingly obvious that this is a cost-cutting measure meant to be a race-to-the-bottom for all of us”

The worker points out that it appears that all St Mungo’s “care about is their brand and not the actual service and staff. They don’t listen to us. They spend tens of thousands of pounds on PR, have an executive team earning £700,000 between them, then they try to cut costs everywhere else. They have taken a very heavy-handed anti-union approach amid this dispute, banning union meetings at work. And then on top of everything they punish us for being sick.”

Last Sunday Unite welcomed that fact that St Mungo’s changed its sickness policy in light of coronavirus, but it said must go further and scrap the onerous requirement of making workers call two people when off sick.

St Mungo’s denies it has been cutting pay, changing terms and conditions or making people redundant, and said they had “done everything possible” to stop the strike and had made reasonable compromises. They claim that inexperienced staff have only be used on very rare occasions.