Former staff protest over unpaid wages at body parts scandal firm

Former employees are to protest outside the headquarters of the Scottish waste disposal firm under criminal investigation for failure to process clinical material, including human body parts, as legal action to recoup unpaid wages begins next week.

Following months of controversy over the the handling of contracts to dispose of clinical waste for NHS trusts and boards by Healthcare Environmental Services (HES), which is based at Shotts in North Lanarkshire, nearly 400 workers UK-wide were told two days after Christmas that they were being made redundant with immediate effect.

They have yet to receive their December wages and other outstanding payments, while many have not been able to claim redundancy through the UK government’s insolvency service because they had not worked at HES for the requisite two-year period.

A spokesperson for the protesters said many workers had still not received redundancy payouts and that some had been forced to turn to local food banks.

Next week, David Martyn, the head of employment rights at Thompson Solicitors, will bring claims against HES for unpaid wages, overtime and holiday pay to an employment tribunal. He is representing 180 people across the country.

Martyn told the Guardian: “What makes this case highly unusual is that normally a company would be in administration by now and former employees wouldn’t have to go through this laborious process. But because they are not, we have to go to court.”

Initially, managing director of HES, Garry Pettigrew, refused to declare insolvency, insisting that he would fight to save the company “to the very end”, and accusing the UK government of trying to close it down.

But Martyn said administrators were now wary of taking on the firm because of the backlog of waste, which they fear they would become responsible for.

In January, it was estimated that up to 300 tonnes of clinical waste and 10 tonnes of anatomical waste were stockpiled at the HES plants in Dundee and Shotts, and that specialist teams would be required for a clearance operation likely to cost about £250,000.

Martyn said: “We’ve been told by administrators that recent court cases have said that the first thing they have to do is secure any environmental issues, and they see a huge liability here.”

He said the workers were calling on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and local authorities to exercise their statutory powers to get the waste cleared urgently. “For the workers’ sake and for the environment there needs to be a clean up.”

Former employees from across the UK have faced financial hardship since the redundancies were announced. Nicola Jacks, whose husband was made redundant from the firm’s depot in Rainham, Essex, said: “We have a 20-month-old daughter and to struggle to feed her and buy her basics like nappies just after the most expensive time of the year is embarrassing and the most humiliating time of our lives. She should not suffer for Garry Pettigrew’s childish, selfish and spoilt behaviour.”

Jacks expressed frustration at the slow pace of progress: “How can someone employ 400 employees, dump them with no notice, refuse to pay them, continue trading, yet telling former employees to claim money through the insolvency service, and get away with it?”

A spokesperson for Sepa said that the waste still stockpiled at Scottish sites did not pose “any current risk of pollution or harm to human health”.

The spokesperson added: “HES remains responsible for meeting environmental obligations under their permits, and to ensure that waste is removed from their sites to authorised treatment or disposal facilities.

“Breaching environmental legislation is a criminal offence and in January Sepa launched an investigation into whether criminal offences have been committed.”

The Environment Agency for England, which took enforcement action against HES 15 times in 2018, has begun a criminal investigation over the unauthorised backlog of waste.

The Scottish government’s health secretary, Jeane Freeman, has repeatedly called on Pettigrew to meet his obligations to former staff.


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