Outsourcing debate in UK service sector

23rd of September 2013
Outsourcing debate in UK service sector

Our UK correspondent explores the controversial issue of outsourcing in the services sector.

Outsourcing, the way in which most of our cleaning services are provided today, has been the recipient of a poor press recently which it ought to regard as a shot across the bows for an industry which some may feel is a little too pleased with itself.

We have seen two companies supplying services in tagging and monitoring prisoners charging for work not actually done and apparent fictitious fitting of tags while charging HM Prison Service substantial sums for doing or rather not doing so. Then there was the dinner lady sacked apparently for serving a Muslim child a pork meal, although it was not eaten. The complete failure of the provision of security staff for the London 2012 Olympics with the situation being saved by the hard-pressed military.

Small matters you may say but it should be a wake-up call to all FM companies. Outsourcing had its beginning in the cleaning industry during the period when accountants became company kingpins, succeeding the marketing people who had in turn usurped the role of the engineers. Many people believe that this led to the decline in British industry. This is an emotive and attractive idea but cannot be proved.

Accountants charged with improving the bottom line sought to cut costs and what better way than to reduce the head count? No cleaning staff problems, paper work or regulation to worry about and a fall in wages and ancillary costs.

Contract cleaners seized on this bonanza, promising cleaner premises at lower cost while the staff employed would have the best interests of the client at heart.

In many cases this was true and remains true today. There were, however, businesses who did not understand the concept - who reduced promised staff numbers, employed illegal migrant labour and paid as little as possible.

Some employers, far too many, once the apparent advantages had accrued sought to improve on this in two ways: making additional requirements without an increase in contract costs and driving down contract prices, causing the contractor to pay wages described in press rhetoric as ‘poverty wages’ leading to debates on the ‘Living Wage’. None of this benefited the cleaning industry as a whole and has been compounded by the attitude of the NHS, many parts of which are bitterly opposed to outsourcing of any type.

Meanwhile outsourcing grew in other areas - security, car parking and catering as well as payroll and services which it would have been prudent to leave under direct control. In local authority, the government saw an opportunity to showcase the talents of the private sector.

Many contract companies, now emerging as fully fledged FM organisations, are doing a great job. They and the clients are adopting the motto of Barcelona football fans – ‘one Team’ - and it is in part up to the new sector associations, now appearing, to ensure this is the case right across the board.

It is in the avoidance of things going wrong where the danger signals must be spotted. When things go awry the words attributed to president Nixon ring out: “Those who are responsible are not necessarily guilty and those who are guilty are not necessarily responsible.”
In other words: “Not me, mate. I only work here!”


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