Granada Food Services has been ordered by a remedial industrial tribunal to reinstate 20 catering and cleaning staff who were sacked from London's Hillingdon Hospital in 1995 when the contract was held by Pall Mall.
Granada, which bought Pall Mall's business, healthcare and defence catering interests in summer 1997, expressed surprise at the ruling, which must be complied with within six months. Granada must also offer pay and conditions similar to those in force before the sackings.
In a statement, the company said: "Clearly this decision has serious implications for our existing workforce at Hillingdon, as we do not have 20 vacancies and the working patterns and practices of staff have changed over the past two-and-a-half years."
The tribunal also awarded the 20 workers the maximum compensation of £11,300 each, plus a smaller sum for one other employee. Granada says this will be paid by former Pall Mall owner the Davis Service Group, which agreed to retain responsibility for the dispute.
The mainly Asian, female staff were among 54 sacked in November 1995 for striking in protest against proposed cuts in pay and conditions. They picketed the hospital seven days a week until January 1997.
Health workers' union Unison described the verdict - which it has awaited for over two months following five days of remedial hearings in May and July - as "a stunning victory".
Granada has until mid-November to decide whether to appeal against the tribunal ruling.
The company added: "We inherited a number of potentially serious industrial relations issues when we acquired Pall Mall. We are pleased to say that all have been settled amicably."
By Angela Frewin