A con­ver­sa­tion with SOAS cleaners ahead of their strike ac­tion, 4 – 5 March 2014

The on-​going struggle of the SOAS Cleaners for ac­cept­able working con­di­tions and equality in the work­place has re­ceived some media at­ten­tion since its in­cep­tion in 2007 – 2008. For a thor­ough and en­ga­ging ana­lysis of the his­tory of cleaners’ la­bour act­ivism across the city, in­cluding the massive con­tri­bu­tions they have made to the London Living Wage Campaign, see Robert B’s piece “Crisis in the Cleaning Sector”, pub­lished in December 2013.

Employed by the out­sourced com­pany ISS since 1993, SOAS cleaning staff are de­prived of ad­equate sick pay, pen­sion be­ne­fits, and hol­iday pay. In other words, they are denied the same con­trac­tual be­ne­fits, job se­curity, and working con­di­tions that those em­ployed dir­ectly by SOAS cur­rently have. Working in a de facto se­greg­ated en­vir­on­ment, SOAS cleaners have over­whelm­ingly voted to take strike ac­tion on March 4th and 5th in their fight for equal working con­di­tions, re­spect for the value of their la­bour, and re­cog­ni­tion of their dig­nity as workers.

Educating people about the basic facts of SOAS cleaners’ working con­di­tions has en­sured wide­spread sup­port amongst stu­dents, staff, and others. As one part of a broader move­ment of res­ist­ance against the out­sourcing and privat­isa­tion of various as­pects of higher edu­ca­tion pro­vi­sion, the Justice 4 Cleaners cam­paign is a vital part of the struggle for a more demo­cratic, just and fair work­place and place of study. Here, three workers spent their lunch break ex­plaining what the reality of living in London as im­mig­rant workers in pre­carious, un­der­valued jobs is like. (As ISS has just sus­pended union re­cog­ni­tion, they were not able to carry out any union-​related activ­ities during work hours). Theirs is a much more com­plex story than we could convey in this short con­ver­sa­tion, but our hope is that, des­pite its brevity, the con­ver­sa­tion will in­crease aware­ness about some as­pects of their working lives, and garner much needed sup­port for their up­coming strike ac­tion.

How long have you worked at SOAS?

Patricia: I started working at SOAS in 2008, it’s been al­most 6 years. I started working here early in the morning for 2 hours, and for the last 3 years I’ve been working here from 10am till 3pm.

The rules here are to come to work when you are told to come and do the work as you are told. They don’t care if I have to look after my chil­dren or not. I have to do what I’ve been told to do, every day. For me it’s really hard be­cause of the fact that they don’t ac­tu­ally take into ac­count that I have to rush to pick up my daughter. If they were a bit more flex­ible with maybe let­ting me go 10 minutes be­fore I finish my shift to pick up my daughter, that would be much better. It’s a huge rush. She is 9 years old and she studies in Stamford Hill.

How do you cope with child­care when your child is ill?

Patricia: When my child is sick during the week, I have to rely on friends or someone who is willing to help until I finish my shift. [Patricia is a single mother]. If this doesn’t work out, I have no op­tion but to call and miss the day of work. I won’t get paid if I miss the day of work to look after a sick child.

I be­lieve this is a policy that comes from the com­pany. They don’t ac­tu­ally care about our per­sonal situ­ations. I raised this issue once and I was told it is com­pany policy. My situ­ation is really dif­fi­cult if some­thing hap­pens with my daughter.

How long have you lived in London for?

Patricia: I have been living in London for 12 years. I mi­grated from Colombia. I ended up working here [at SOAS] be­cause the shift-​work suits me for dealing with my daughter. And I’m only working here be­cause I need to sup­port my family.

Because of the trade union move­ments in Colombia I be­lieve in the strength of trade unions, and this is why I joined the union.

Can you de­scribe how you feel working in an en­vir­on­ment where other workers have better working conditions?

Patricia: I feel bad about it, and feel dis­crim­in­ated against for those reasons. Particularly be­cause of the dis­parity between the be­ne­fits that other workers re­ceive. For ex­ample, my daughter suf­fers from asthma, and des­pite what hap­pens to her I have to keep coming to work be­cause oth­er­wise I don’t get paid. So even when my child is ill, or I am ill, I have to keep coming to work.

How long have you been working at SOAS for?

Luis Armando: I’ve been working nearly 18 years at SOAS. In my ex­per­i­ence the first bar­rier I had is lan­guage. My first lan­guage is Spanish, and so I think this was the first bar­rier for us, to com­mu­nicate and to ex­press our con­cerns, to ask ques­tions about our rights. It is when you don’t un­der­stand English that abuse and ex­ploit­a­tion take place.

When you speak and un­der­stand the lan­guage you know, it helps you to ex­press your de­mands, and to know know your rights.

We are called the in­vis­ibles here at SOAS. I have been working for 18 years, I have col­leagues working here more than me, 20 years, 22 years. For us — in my case — I feel very badly, be­cause I think, I have given everything to SOAS; my youth, my phys­ical health and en­ergy, my know­ledge. I un­der­stand that I am working for a com­pany. I also un­der­stand that the cleaning com­pany makes an in­vest­ment and that for them it’s a busi­ness, and the only thing that mat­ters to them is greater profits and ac­cu­mu­lating more cap­ital. But at the same time they have to un­der­stand that those with whom they’re con­tracting are working human be­ings who give their all to get a wage that will allow them to sur­vive; I want to in­sist on the fact that those under con­tract are not ma­chines, they are human be­ings, and we de­serve re­spect and dig­nity. Given this, my ques­tion is, why does SOAS say no when we ask for these be­ne­fits? I don’t un­der­stand. Tomorrow, I’m older, I haven’t got any pen­sion, at the mo­ment I haven’t got sick pay, I haven’t got the same hol­i­days as other workers at SOAS. This is a frus­tra­tion for us.

When I’m sick, you know, I have to come to work, be­cause if I don’t come in, the com­pany doesn’t pay. For me if I lose just one day’s pay it’s a for­tune. Because our salaries are not the same as the high rates [paid to others].

That is why we have to work 10, 12 or 14 hours a day. We start at 4am, we are at home 10pm. Sometimes we don’t taste any food, be­cause there is no time. Time is our enemy. That is why we are in this cam­paign. I think we are very con­fident in asking for these be­ne­fits be­cause it’s not fair. All the cleaners have de­cided to go on strike, be­cause the com­pany we work for have said no, we can’t pay you these be­ne­fits. Why does SOAS say no? The an­swer is ‘no, you don’t work for SOAS, you work for ISS’. But it’s not true, we work for SOAS, we clean these cor­ridors, these rooms. I want to do the best job pos­sible and I feel re­spons­ible for my work.

Roughly how many cleaners at SOAS hold second jobs?

Luis Armando: That’s the problem — nearly all workers have more than one job. Our wages are low. We have to look for an­other job to cover bills, food, and rent. If you have chil­dren, a family, it’s some­thing that is very frus­trating, having to pay all of these bills on such low wages. If you get sick, you just get £87 a week. Just rent alone is £100 – £120 a week. How will I buy food for my family? How will I pay for travel? If you don’t pay your bills here you end up in court.

There is also tax. We don’t ask for any­thing free, we also con­tribute to the state. That is why we ask the ques­tion, why does SOAS say no? They say ISS is re­spons­ible. But we are giving everything to this place [SOAS].

Ezequiel: We have quite a few cases of people who couldn’t pay their rent when they are ill, they have to choose between buying food, paying rent, and cov­ering other bills.

It’s also im­portant to note that on the second or third job, cleaners don’t get the London Living Wage, they are likely to get £6.19 an hour, not the living wage. If you add up the num­bers, they are living on the poverty line un­less they work 2 or 3 jobs.

Luis Armando: All the cleaners have de­cided to go on strike, be­cause ISS has said ‘no be­ne­fits’. The second door is SOAS, as we are working here. SOAS has said they also can’t pay these be­ne­fits. And this is why we have de­cided to go on strike, March 4th and 5th.

Where did you mi­grate from?

Luis Armando: I mi­grated from Ecuador. It’s im­portant to see that this story has an origin. We are here not be­cause we want to do so out of choice. In our coun­tries there are no jobs, in my country there was cor­rup­tion. I don’t come from a rich family. I had to es­cape my country of my own will, leaving be­hind my family, which is the most pre­cious thing. We have been ex­iled by poverty, and the blame lies with the cor­rupt bankers who came up with bank fairs, the turnover of 7 pres­id­ents in 10 years, the dol­lar­iz­a­tion of Ecuador, brutal eco­nomic pack­ages, forces mi­gra­tion and the de­struc­tion of thou­sands upon thou­sands of fam­ilies, and so on and so forth. That is the sad reality.

I’ve got a de­gree, I’m a mech­an­ical en­gineer, and I was at uni­ver­sity for 5 years. I thought that by trav­el­ling to England there would be better con­di­tions here. But it’s not true, really. It’s not true. First thing is the lan­guage bar­rier, to com­mu­nicate with people and then starting these protests and the in­tim­id­a­tion we face.

Ezequiel: When SOAS started to in­vest 33 mil­lion pounds on the North Block of Senate House, we see that none of this money is in­vested in the people; not the lec­turers, the tu­tors, the cleaners. They are in­vesting in the mar­ket­iz­a­tion of edu­ca­tion. All of the toi­lets from the ground floor to the fifth floor have been ren­ov­ated to the standard of a hotel. The car­pets have been re­placed. They are in­vesting a lot of money on prop­erty but not on human cap­ital. This is a big oxy­moron of what SOAS stands for. The reality is that they are full of the logic of the market.

Luis Armando: SOAS is a pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sity. They want to say that here there is equality, dig­nity, there is a com­munity, but this is not true. This situ­ation is not just af­fecting the cleaners, it is af­fecting every­body. Today, edu­ca­tion is being con­verted into a business.

You are the lec­turer, I would like to tell the stu­dents why we are going on strike. I would like to tell you that we need your sup­port on those days. The cleaning job is as im­portant as other jobs. It’s not be­cause we are the cleaners that we are second-​class; as if we are coming from a dif­ferent planet! We are hu­mans, we de­serve to get these benefits.

Ezequiel: It’s not just the SOAS man­agers who are com­plicit with ISS. Last year there was a Sub-​Committee con­sti­tuted by the Governing Body [of SOAS] to con­sider the fin­an­cial feas­ib­ility of bringing the cleaners in-​house. They agreed that UCU and the Student Union would have rep­res­ent­a­tion on this com­mittee. The Committee agreed to 20-​minute present­a­tions from UCU, Unison and the Student Union, but not the cleaners. Unison re­fused to sit at the table without cleaners rep­res­enting them­selves. Unison there­fore withdrew.

When you go on in the lec­ture hall talking about whether the sub­al­tern can speak, and you go about talking about ori­ent­alism, this is very hy­po­crit­ical! To what ex­tent are the man­agers ac­tu­ally rep­res­enting us?

Can you ex­plain what the gen­eral cli­mate for the cleaners is like at the mo­ment, and the im­plic­a­tions of the sus­pen­sion of union recognition?

Ezequiel: ISS has sus­pended union re­cog­ni­tion, to put pres­sure on the cleaners. The cleaners’ bal­loting pro­cess lasted for 3 weeks. The first day that the bal­lots were sent to the union mem­bers, Paul Cronin from ISS Human Resources came to SOAS first thing in the morning, at 6am. Cleaners were dir­ected to Room G2, and told by Cronin about the con­sequences of being on strike: that they will be easily re­placed be­cause ISS has so many workers on the payroll; and that if ISS lose the con­tract due to in­dus­trial ac­tion, there is no guar­antee that the com­pany that will take over will pay the London Living Wage. Cleaners felt this “emer­gency staff meeting” was sim­ilar to what happened in 2009, when 9 cleaners were de­ported for doc­u­ment­a­tion issues.

With re­gard to union sus­pen­sion — it means that workers can’t meet during work hours for a union meeting; Unison reps who aren’t em­ployed by ISS can’t make any rep­res­ent­a­tions to the em­ployer; they have stopped com­mu­nic­ating in an ef­fi­cient manner with union act­iv­ists, and the griev­ances pro­ced­ures are being ignored.

Workers (cleaning and ca­tering staff) at the University of London re­cently won some gains re­lating to sick pay, hol­iday pay, and zero-​hour con­tracts, after sus­tained and well-​supported strike ac­tion. It should be noted how­ever, that there is still much fur­ther to go be­fore cleaning staff at the University of London have equal working con­di­tions; as it stands now, workers are only en­titled to pen­sion be­ne­fits after 7 years of work (and even these do not amount to the same value as other workers); and sick pay en­ti­tle­ments are not avail­able for workers until after 3 months of ser­vice. As one worker pointed out, workers are often at their most vul­ner­able, phys­ic­ally, during the first three months of work when they have often just mi­grated to the U.K.

For more in­form­a­tion on the Justice 4 Cleaners Campaign, and to donate to the strike fund, please see here

From Critical Legal Thinking

Thanks to Alberto Toscano for as­sist­ance with the trans­lating, and to Leticia Sabsay for her helpful comments.