Today I sent a message of support to the hospital food services staff who were picketing at Middlemore hospital in South Auckland.
The picket, by Service and Food Workers Union members is in response to a proposal to contract out meal preparations at the hospitals in the three Auckland District Health Board areas. The proposal – which was put forward by Health Benefits Limited a crown-owned agency that was set up in 2010 to find savings in the health sector – was originally touted as having the potential to save $175 million over 15 years if all the District Health Boards (DHBs) in the country contracted out all the kitchen services.
However those figures are in doubt and a couple of weeks ago the new Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman announced that Health Benefits Limited would be wound down by June next year.
In the meantime Auckland District Health board will vote on the proposal to contract out the meal preparation at their meeting next week. The deal would mean that multinational company Compass would have a long term contract to prepare meals in a central location that would then be delivered to the hospitals to be re-heated for patients. The SFWU estimates that a quarter of the kitchen jobs would go at Middlemore hospital and about a fifth of the jobs at the kitchens at Auckland, Greenlane, Northshore and Waitakere. The remaining staff, many of them very long serving workers, may be taken on by a new employer but they will deal with the added insecurity around their hours, their pay and their working conditions.
For me this really does feel like a Back to the Future concept. I was a union organiser with the union in the 1990’s when the National government of that day took the same shortcuts and contracted out the hospital food and cleaning services in hospitals all around the country. The so-called ‘savings’ were short-lived and over time many of those services were brought back to being delivered by directly employed staff. I know union members who have worked in the same hospital for a couple of decades but have shifted from being directly employed to being employed by contractors sometimes multiple times!
As well as the plight of the kitchen workers I am also concerned about the health and wellbeing of the hospital patients and the potential reduction in the quality and nutritional value of the food from a centralised food preparation system that relies on reheating meals. The similar ‘cook/chill’ method from the 90’s eventually failed because food quality was compromised. Reheating frozen meals will never trump fresh local ingredients. We look set to having to learn this expensive lesson all over again.