SOAS Spirit Clare Birkett, MSc Environment, Politics and Development

Bringing cleaners in-house at SOAS university, London, is back on the table after protesters crashed a management meeting, reports SOAS student Clare Birkett

The Justice for Cleaners campaign relaunched with vigour on 27th November as protesters entered a meeting of the School’s Governing Body, pressuring management into reconsidering the option of bringing the cleaners back in-house.

The situation of the cleaners had not been on the agenda of the meeting, but pressure led to the management representatives present at the meeting committing to speaking to the University of London to reach a final decision on whether cleaners will be made part of a shared service with other University of London establishments, something that SOAS committed to looking at two years ago. Management then stated that if the University of London does not decide on a shared service, then it will look at other options, including bringing the cleaners in house.

“Today has succeeded in applying pressure and putting the option of bringing the cleaners in-house back on the table,” said SOAS student union co-president Georgie Robertson.

The news came as the SOAS community learnt that SOAS management had refused to sponsor a visa for Jason Moyer-Lee, a move that the former SOAS PhD student claims was due to his activism in the cleaners’ campaigns.

However, after a campaign supporting Jason quickly mounted within SOAS, last Friday management made an about-turn, committing to sponsoring Jason to set up his small consultancy on grassroots organising. The ordeal follows similar incidents such as in 2009 when SOAS management collaborated with immigration authorities, which resulted in nine cleaners being deported.

The member of SOAS management who began investigating Jason’s complaint spoke to the Spirit before the decision was overturned: “I’ve not found any evidence that there was any kind of management conspiracy to stop him getting this visa,” she said.

She added that a potential conflict of interest between Jason’s business idea and SOAS had been identified, but that Jason had been involved in conversations about this. She explained that this was reflected in Jason’s business proposal, which specifies that he will not be involved in campaigns that directly involve SOAS.

“I don’t believe that that shows political bias, I believe it shows a legitimate concern about a conflict of interest for the institution,” she said.

“Of course they’re going to try to save face,” said Jason in response to the quote, “But the evidence showing that the reason for my visa rejection was political, is overwhelming.”

“SOAS has decided to make him wait until his visa almost ran out to give him a response, which is very unacceptable and unprofessional on the part of SOAS,” said Henry Chango Lopez, Chair of the University of London IWGB branch, in a video made to support Jason’s campaign.

“This is going to affect many other students that come into the country and study in these institutions and who maybe want to get involved in campaigns like Jason has done, and for that reason they’re going to be punished,” he continued.

The demonstration on 27th November began on the SOAS steps, with calls to the management to meet with cleaners, and chants of ‘Management out, cleaners in!’

SOAS management is refusing to meet with the cleaners on the grounds that the latter are not employed directly by SOAS. “The irony is that that is exactly what we’re asking for- to be brought in-house!” said one of the cleaners, who spoke anonymously to the Spirit.

“If management won’t meet with cleaners, then cleaners can’t have a chance to explain the intimidation they face,” said Georgie.

Georgie, who was in the management meeting last Thursday, told the Spirit that it was near impossible to follow the meeting’s proceedings due to the noise coming from the demonstration outside.

An hour and a half into the meeting, around fifteen students broke away from the main demonstration to stand around the edge of the meeting room holding placards.

“We stood in silence, to represent voices of the cleaners that are not being heard,” said one protester who did not wish to be named.

While SOAS’s cleaners won some impressive victories last year – gaining the right to sick pay, holiday pay, and a pension – they are still employed through a contractor, ISS, and they still don’t have the same conditions and rights as other staff.

“At the moment we only have about 70-80% of the same rights as staff that are employed directly by the university. La lucha continua! (the fight continues!)” said one of the cleaners, who did not wish to be named.

“Our jobs are insecure, and we live injustice and exploitation every day,” said Lenin Escudero, one of the cleaners’ union representatives, at a public meeting for the relaunch of the campaign the day before the protest. He highlighted that intimidation and exploitation comes from all angles, not just from ISS. “Everyone in this university deserves to be treated with equality and justice. These are values that the university claims to uphold, but in reality this isn’t the case,” he said.

Many of the cleaners have worked at SOAS for over twenty years, yet still they are subcontractedand they are being threatened with being subjected to zero hour contracts.

In addition, cleaners say that ISS are refusing to cooperate with the cleaners’ union. “When we raise collective concerns with ISS, our matters are not addressed properly,” said Lenin. “Instead they take issue with the complaining cleaner.”

Addressing students at the public meeting last Wednesday, Lenin said “Your support is very important. Without you we would never have had the successes that we know today.”

“If the shared service doesn’t happen, the SOAS community (especially the cleaners) needs to be involved in reviewing alternatives, so that we can make the case for bringing the cleaners in-house,” added Georgie Robertson, in an interview with the Spirit.