1980s >> 1984 >> no-963-november-1984

Wash-day blues

Like most students who don’t have Prince Edward’s connections, I was forced to seek employment during the summer vacation and was eventually “lucky” enough to secure the position of machine operator in a hospital laundry. The rate I was to be paid was the same as for full-time employees — £66.89 basic for a forty-hour week (all thoughts of becoming a tax exile in the near future quickly vanished). For those, like myself, who are less mathematically inclined this works out at £1.67 PSH (per slave hour) but like the majority of labour power sellers I was confronted with an offer I could not refuse.


This particular laundry served five hospitals. one of them psychiatric and another dealing with infectious diseases. The process begins at the dirty end — items are sorted by hand into barrows on the basis of type and how badly soiled. For this necessary but particularly unpleasant job, as for the operators who load the machines, what is euphemistically called Foul Linen money is paid at the rate of 50 pence a day. This extra is paid to compensate for the risk of contracting scabies, infectious hepatitis and other sundry ills.


The atmosphere, as can be imagined, can get very warm and smelly and on warm days it was common to be wet from head to foot with perspiration for the whole of the working day. Staff are periodically moved on a rota to different tasks within the laundry, possibly in a futile attempt to lessen their boredom. Futile since each task is as boring and debilitating as any other, whether standing all day folding pieces of clothing or feeding bed linen into the drying and folding machine. After a few hours on any of these monotonous, repetitive tasks, the brain begins to numb and actions become almost automatic. The only consolation for me and others like me was that we were there for a limited period only for the wages certainly offered no solace.


How do the full-time workers stand it? One said. “You know there’s nothing else, you resign yourself to it”. Many of them sought escape through the pages of the Sun, Daily Star and Mills and Boon; they also showed a keen interest in the lives of their masters, having pictures of the royal family pinned on the laundry walls.


Students pay no income tax. so with six hours overtime I could take home £74.00, which means that full-time staff would take home less than £70.00 or less than £60.00 without overtime. While I was there a paltry rise of around £3.14 had come through for laundry workers. As if this wasn’t enough it is believed that this particular laundry will go private in the near future, in line with government policy, which brought rumours of staff lay-offs, replacement with cheaper labour or wage cuts for those kept on, all in the cause of profitability.


Hospital ancillary workers, like other NHS workers, do a very important job but as always are among the poorest paid. The laundry workers’ unions — the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) — are. like all unions, useful only up to a point. Unions can never eradicate the root of the workers’ problems; they fight battles but will never win the war. Under capitalism all production is for profit and the minority capitalist class appropriate the wealth created by the majority. The capitalists’ goal is to maximise profits by making the working class work harder for less.


John Neill