24 November 2009 | Carly Chynoweth
Unison is calling on all NHS procurement teams to revisit services contracts in the wake of allegations that a cleaning contractor employed illegal immigrants.
Responding to claims that ISS Mediclean, a major supplier of facilities services to the UK healthcare sector, has been employing "dozens, if not hundreds" of illegal workers from overseas, the union said the situation highlighted the NHS's general lack of control over private contractors.
The case underlined concerns about "the whole procurement setup" because it was not possible to significantly cut costs on labour-intensive services such as cleaning without affecting quality, a Unison spokeswoman said.
The UK Border Agency is currently investigating assertions that ISS Mediclean has been flouting immigration laws by placing illegal immigrants into contract cleaning roles at Kingston Hospital in Surrey.
It is also alleged that managers at the company had been blackmailing illegal workers to keep quiet. Unison has been campaigning for some time to end outsourcing of NHS facilities services because it made this sort of exploitation possible.
Karen Jennings, the organisation's head of health, added in a statement: "Everything to do with the NHS needs governance and the public needs to be sure their money is spent on patients.
A thorough investigation is needed and other hospital trusts may also wish to examine their contractual arrangements and probity with private contractors."
Three of the firm's managers were arrested last week on suspicion of blackmailing foreign workers after allegedly threatening to report them to the immigration authorities.
They have been bailed until February pending further enquiries, a police spokesman said.
A spokesperson for the hospital said it has been working with police, the UK Border Agency and Kingston Race and Equalities Council (KREC) for several months, but was unable to comment further.
ISS Mediclean is one of the biggest players in NHS outsourcing. Department of Health (DoH) figures show that in 2006-07 the firm was servicing 29 of 122 outsourced contracts in the NHS and had about 16 per cent of the market by value.
A spokesman for ISS Mediclean, which employs around 43,000 staff at NHS and private hospitals, said the company was co-operating fully with the police investigation.
It has been contacted by a number of NHS trusts since the story came to light but they have been "reassured by the measures we are taking," he added.
A DoH spokesperson said the NHS has been given clear guidelines on pre-employment checks, including eligibility to work, but individual contractors are responsible for checking their employees have the right to work in the UK.