Photo: SOAS Justice for Workers Photo: SOAS Justice for Workers

The historic victory of SOAS workers after a bold and militant campaign should serve as inspiration for struggles across the public sector, argues Feyzi Ismail.

A relentless, united and inspirational campaign to bring cleaners and other outsourced support staff in-house at SOAS has won. SOAS management has pledged to stop outsourcing all of its core support services to private contractors (Bouygues and Elior) by September 2018.

A letter was sent out to all staff, unions and support staff stating, ‘Our current staff in central facilities teams will be directly employed by the university. This means that they will be on equal pay and conditions with existing SOAS employees’. While management is now proud to claim to be one of the leading universities having all core services in-house, it was the result of eleven years of campaigning by Justice for Cleaners, which became the Justice for Workers campaign in 2016.

There are over 120 support staff at SOAS that keep the institution running. They work in cleaning, catering, conferencing and events hospitality; there are also porters, security staff, and those who work in the post room, the helpdesk and reception. Without these workers, SOAS would cease to function.

The campaign began in 2006 fighting for the London Living Wage, which they won in 2008. They continued the campaign, fighting for sick pay, holiday pay and pensions, securing these basic rights only in 2014. According to Unison, they won 27 days annual leave, excluding bank holidays (after four years of service); six months full sick pay (after six years of service); and access to the ISS group pension scheme. ISS is the contractor that previously employed the cleaners, a company known to provide services for illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine.

The long-standing demand, and the focus of the campaign since 2014, has been that the cleaners – and from 2016 all catering staff – be brought in-house. Management had always maintained that outsourcing was cost effective (as if costs should outweigh working conditions), and that due to financial constraints it would be impractical to employ the cleaners directly.

But when an independent review of services was carried out by APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) to assess whether maintenance contracts were cheaper outsourced, it concluded that the difference was negligible. An unpublished report also revealed that outsourcing cleaning services over the following five-year period would cost SOAS an extra £2.3 million. The APSE report had to be fought for, but it was impossible for management to ignore for much longer, particularly with protests, strikes and student occupations over the years.

Although there have been victories, the struggle has been difficult. On 12 June 2009, ISS and SOAS management called the cleaners to a meeting, locked them in the room and subjected them to interrogation by immigration officials from the UK Border Agency. In response, students occupied the Director’s office and refused to leave until an agreement was reached, whereby management would seek indefinite leave to remain from the Home Office for all cleaners who were threatened with deportation. Nine cleaners were eventually deported, including a pregnant woman. 

The mainly Colombian and Ecuadorian cleaning force suffer some of the toughest and physically demanding working conditions, starting work as early as 5am and being treated badly by their employers. But they have had a great deal of support and solidarity from academic staff and students. In a referendum organised by Unison and Justice for Cleaners in 2012, over 98 per cent of the almost 1,300 staff and students who voted thought that the cleaners should be brought in-house.

The student occupation in June this year proved to be decisive. On the same day that staff and students were commemorating the deportation of their colleagues, 12 June, private contractor Elior issued a letter to catering staff of proposed redundancies over the alleged closure of the SOAS refectory. It is unlikely that SOAS management was unaware of the letter. The students immediately occupied the Director’s office, demanding no cuts, no closures, no redundancies, amongst other demands.

Once again, they refused to leave until an agreement with management was reached: the refectory would remain open, catering staff would keep their jobs and Elior would issue an apology. In addition, it was also agreed that catering staff would be paid on a par with other outsourced workers at SOAS.

There have been similar victories elsewhere, notably LSE’s decision to bring the cleaners in-house following 10 months of protests. The recent decision by SOAS management to bring all core services in-house could indeed set a precedent; victories at two prominent universities could mean the reversal of outsourcing across the sector, which began in the early 1990s. But this will not happen without a fight.

It is perhaps no coincidence that it was the combination of forces – ongoing strikes and protests by the unions and the campaigns, regular student occupations, and cleaning and catering staff beginning to organise together – that forced SOAS management to surrender. There will be undoubtedly more to fight for, but SOAS workers will have gained the confidence to win. For now, this victory must serve as inspiration for struggles not only in higher education but across the whole of the public sector.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU