Health ministers are close to an agreement that will give private sector staff working on contracted-out health services broadly the same pay rates as those working for the NHS.
The move is aimed at averting a series of strike threats at NHS hospitals where cleaning, catering, laundry and similar services worth about £700m a year have been contracted out, reports the Financial Times.
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt has had talks with private sector suppliers, NHS employers, Unison and other unions about the agreement, which will see contract workers included in the new Agenda for Change structure.
Agenda for Change is the NHS-wide pay restructuring, now being implemented, in which staff will be paid according to their skills and responsibilities, rather than their job title.
The failure of private sector suppliers to match those rates has led to disputes and strike ballots at the Norfolk and Norwich hospital and at Aintree in Liverpool, with potential disputes developing elsewhere.
It is understood the NHS recognises that new private sector contracts should reflect the Agenda for Change pay rates. But negotiations are continuing on transitional arrangements for existing contracts where ministers appear to be willing to meet only part of the extra costs.