Newly-unionized cleaners at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) will strike on March 4 and 5 as part of their ongoing campaign for treatment equal to other university employees. (Both striking workers quoted in this story asked to remain anonymous to prevent retribution from their employer.)
“The struggle for equality goes throughout capitalism,” an SOAS cleaner tells me. “The problem is not about resources, the resources are there; the problem is about distribution. To fight this we have built broad unity and solidarity, things you need to succeed.”
During the last seven years, the Justice For Cleaners campaign has been demanding equal recognition with other workers. The cleaners currently work for the multinational cleaning company ISS rather than their fellow in-house workers, and argue they are treated as second class workers.
In 2008, cleaners basked in the victory of the new London Living Wage and union membership, despite stiff resistance from ISS and university management. Striking cleaners aim to win in-house employment with their action.
“Being brought in-house will mean we are no less important than any other workers,” another cleaner explains. “Our treatment flies in the face of the reputation of SOAS and what it teaches; in this it stands for human rights, equality laws, workers rights and other progressive aspects of our global society.”
ISS workers accuse their company, which has a long track record of anti-worker managerial policies, of intimidation in relation to the upcoming strike, especially after ISS director Paul Cronin called a meeting on January 20 when workers had their first ballot decision on unionizing.
According to workers, Cronin warned the strike won’t result in any changes, and announced plans to call on its other 44,000 workers in the U.K. to replace striking cleaners. Cronin also threatened that if ISS workers don’t stick to their contract, the cleaners would lose the London Living Wage – the mandated base pay that is deemed appropriate to meet adequate living conditions.
After cleaners won a living wage and union recognition in 2008, they were all summoned to what is unofficially known as the Lucas lecture theatre. For many at SOAS, the lecture hall, officially named after a donor to the university, got its namesake from a son birthed by one of the workers after her deportation.
“In July 2008, we went in and nine of our fellow workers were arrested and deported by border authorities, who had been asked in by the university and outsourcing company,” one cleaner said. “The cleaning company knew that there were undocumented workers because they are cheap; it was punishment for our gains.”
ISS cleaners attributed additional grievances to their employer, including verbal abuse and harassment. One recent example happened during the last winter break, when cleaners complained to ISS and university management that the temperature was as low as 50ºF [10ºC], well below minimum requirements of 61 ºF [16ºC]
“After management had ignored the claims, I came in at 7am to speak with the cleaners and document the temperatures,” recent SOAS graduate Ezequiel Kramer describes. He has continued supporting the campaign whilst working for Elior, an outsourcing company that provides catering and hospitality at SOAS.
Kramer showed Occupy.com emails from the university challenging the cleaners’ claims. Kramer and students have documented evidence contradicting the university’s claims, like photographed thermometer readings.
“The terrible thing is that if someone in-house had complained they would have been believed,” Kramer suggests. “It shows discrimination against the cleaners’ health and safety; by implication they are calling the cleaners liars and, on top of this, if these conditions make the workers sick they won’t get paid.”
“When the campaign started is was due to bad pay, but quickly it also uncovered bullying managers and harassment,” said Sandy Nicoll, reflecting on when the Justice for Cleaners campaign began in 2006. Nicoll is the SOAS UNISON Branch Secretary, union secretary for the London Higher Education Executive and has been an activist within the university for twenty years. “This maltreatment is what happens when you outsource a workforce,” he said.
Nicoll explained how this would be a challenge for the cleaners alone.
“To start with, the university denied responsibility for the outsourced workers, so we needed to take to ISS; it is a global company that employs nearly half a million people.” ISS boasts that for every 13,417 people in the world there is one ISS employee. Also, one of the major investors in the company is Goldman Sachs, which Matt Taibbi refers to as the “vampire squid.”
Ezequiel Kramer elaborated on how he views ISS as deliberately unfair to employees. “SOAS hired ISS because they are cheap. The company’s sole focus is making profits.”
“The only way companies can become giants like this is to provide cheap services, by squeezing their labour force with the minimum pay, rights and entitlements. They embody the logic of the market, without a care for human consequences,” Kramer continued.
Criticism of ISS’s treatment of employees isn’t confined to just those involved in the Justice For Cleaners campaign. Nicoll said a ballot carried out by half the SOAS community showed overwhelming support for the cleaners.
“98% of staff and students said they want cleaners brought in-house, showing clearly that management are in an extremely slender minority,” Nicoll said.
Nicoll explained that once ISS’s treatment of workers was made apparent, getting students on board has been easy. He praised students’ creativity in stunts that embarrass management.
After nine cleaners were deported, SOAS students occupied university space for a week and organized walk-ins on senior management meetings. On the anniversary of slavery’s abolishment, students entered a room full of city executives, donors and senior managers claiming exploitation of workers continues today. Students and cleaners have also been organizing fundraising parties to raise money for the strike fund.
According to Nicoll, the campaign is broad-based, with clearly-defined roles for all willing participants.
“It has a very open structure, where students are free to take action, but as it is their campaign, the big decisions are made by the cleaners,” Nicoll said.
Kramer and Nicoll were both arrested during December’s Cops Off Campus demonstrations. Kramer asserts that as students supports cleaners, cleaners support the students, and that intersectionality has aided the campaign’s success. Nicoll said the growing solidarity on campus has resulted in academic departments making statements against management.
“By working together everyone realizes the roots of the problem is neoliberalism, whether worker’s exploitation, higher fees or police attacks on protests,” Kramer said.
Protesters’ repeated calls for British universities to be defined as communities rather than businesses is epitomised by the Justice For Cleaners campaign. Campaign organizers are confident that the rising momentum of the campaign and the looming strike is a sign that workers will win their demands.
“I’m confident we will make changes first in SOAS and build this solidarity across other London campuses and beyond,” Kramer said.