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Hospital workers in British Columbia are urging the provincial auditor general to scrutinize cleaning in four health authorities, as concern grows over cleaning standards that have taken a nosedive since privatization.

In November, the importance of proper cleaning made front-page news as nine women reported serious infections after giving birth at Surrey Memorial Hospital. In early January, a report looking into the incidents revealed that infection control practices are out of control at Surrey Memorial, where cleaning has been contracted out to Sodexho.

Surrey Memorial isn’t an isolated case. An investigation has revealed deteriorating cleaning standards at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital, six months after cleaning services were privatized to US multinational Aramark. The Hospital Employees’ Union and the BC Nurses’ Union conducted the study.

The unsanitary conditions are the result of a dangerous combination of centralized infection control procedures and privatized cleaning. The report into the Surrey infections found that “the active infection surveillance process … was not maintained at the same level as had been the case when the service was hospital-based.” HEU says privatized cleaning further fragmented an already weak system. It’s a similar story at St. Paul’s, where overworked, poorly-trained workers no longer have a direct working relationship with either hospital staff or the infection control department.

Under the privatized schemes, cleaning standards are apparently top secret. HEU got its hands on the Sodexho cleaning contract using freedom of information laws, only to discover it had no information about cleaning standards and service levels – the health authority had blacked them out.

In December, nearly 1,000 Sodexho workers at several hospitals joined HEU. That’s good news – especially for those who work at Abbotsford’s MSA hospital, which is slated for redevelopment as a P3 hospital. Here, Sodexho has been fined for violating workers compensation and health and safety laws. In one incident, a contract worker was exposed to biohazardous waste because Sodexho’s health and safety procedures were developed for the hospitality sector.

In Britain, new research has linked cost-cutting and the contracting out of hospital cleaning with a lowering of cleaning standards and an increased risk of spreading infections. The independent report from a researcher at Cardiff University was commissioned by UNISON, CUPE’s British equivalent.

The number of cleaners in British hospitals is nearly half of what it was 20 years ago, and the result is a spike in infections that kill at least 5,000 people a year and cost the health system more than £1 billion, according to UNISON. Rates of one potentially deadly superbug, MRSA, have tripled in the past decade. Visit www.unison.org.uk to find out more about the report, and the union’s “Think Cleaners” campaign.