Precarious migrant cleaners lead the fight against outsourcing at London universities

On 15 March 2017, cleaners from the London School of Economics (LSE) and supporters from the United Voices of the World Union picketed outside of the university building before marching to and occupying the cleaning contractor company, Noonan. The cleaners were striking for a London Living Wage and better working conditions. (Vickie Flores/Alamy Live News)
London, United Kingdom

“People told us ending outsourcing was impossible,” says Lenin Escudero. But after 11 years of campaigning, he and other cleaners at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, have won the battle. By September 2018, the university will ensure that every worker for SOAS is an employee; as a result, they will receive holiday pay, sick pay and pension contributions, amongst other benefits.

With cleaners at the London School of Economics (LSE) winning a similar victory in June, London’s universities are home to some of the UK’s most inspiring migrant and racialised worker victories in the fight against precarious labour. However, the struggle continues.

During the summer, more than 700 low-paid cleaners, porters, security guards and catering staff at Barts Health NHS Trust (which covers five hospitals in London) went on strike for a 30p (US$0.40) wage increase from the controversial outsourcing giant, Serco. Late last month, a solidarity protest was held after two cleaners at the UK’s biggest luxury car dealership were suspended for joining the United Voices of the World Union, and on 12 October the RMT transport union held a demonstration in support of the cleaners that are battling outsourcing on the London Underground.

In September, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) launched a campaign called Back in House in a bid to end outsourcing and zero hours contracts at all of the University of London’s 18 member institutions (which include SOAS and LSE) and nine research institutions.

Hundreds of people work on temporary contracts for the University of London in a variety of roles such as cleaners and security guards, for a number of companies including Bouygues, Elior and the Noonan Services Group. The IWGB campaign also aims to ensure that previously agreed pay rises are implemented.

“Since 2012 the University of London has tripled the number of staff earning over £100,000 (US$132,400) and the Vice-Chancellor’s salary has increased from £153,000 (US$202,500) to £173,400 (US$229,600), yet it claims it doesn’t have the money to improve the salaries of its lowest paid staff,” said IWGB President Henry Chango Lopez, who works as a porter at the University of London, in a press statement.

“Every time we go to the university to complain about poor pay or conditions, they hide behind the outsourcing companies and say it isn’t their responsibility. This has to stop and we are going to put an end to it.”

Escudero, who is one of the co-founders of the Justice for Cleaners campaign, has met a lot of cleaners since he started work at SOAS in 2003. The Ecuadorian first came to the UK in 1999 as an undocumented migrant. He says that the reality of working as a migrant cleaner in London is a bleak one.

“We work 12 or 14 hours per day, without security or benefits, like sick pay, pensions or holidays. But the worst thing is no respect, because this outsourcing company treats you like a profit making machine.”

Those without legal status or with less fluent English are often treated worse, Escudero says. “Even in higher education now, I know outsourced cleaners that are undocumented workers. As an illegal worker, you have to accept everything that they do to you. If you complain they do not pay you or they will deny holidays.”

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The situation at LSE, another prestigious university less than a mile away from SOAS, echoes Escudero’s. Lydia Hughes, a LSE graduate and a core organiser with the cleaners’ campaign, tells Equal Times that outsourcing companies take punitive action to stamp their authority over the cleaners at every opportunity.

The cleaners strike back

Universities are often politically active spaces, which explains university cleaners are leading the charge against exploitation from Ontario, Canada to Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa.

But the struggle of cleaners is not limited to academic spaces. At Barts Hospital Trust in London, within days of Serco taking over cleaning and other contracts in April 2017, they tried to deny workers their 15 minute paid tea-break. The next day, the workers had a meeting with Unite the Union, the UK’s biggest general workers’ union, and took action.

Willie Howard an organiser from Unite tells Equal Times: “The workers said ‘We’ll walk off the job’, to which we said ‘You’ll have no protection [in a wildcat strike], but we are not going to stop you doing it’. They went to the canteen, they said ‘Today we are having an hour’s break’…and by the day’s end they had their daily 15 minute break back.”

This wildcat tea-break action may not have been sanctioned by the union, but it encouraged many Barts contract workers to join Unite. The next step was to fight against the increased workload and job cuts by demanding a 30p per hour ($0.42), or 3 per cent, pay rise.

Workers successfully balloted for strike action, walking out for 48 hours on 4 July 2017, for a week on 11 July and two weeks beginning 25 July. The dispute is ongoing and so far Serco has offered just 10p ($0.14) extra per hour.

NHS Barts has just started a 10-year contract with Serco, and the campaign is only in its early stages. Howard says that he contacted both the older LSE and SOAS campaigns for advice on organising at the hospital, but highlights how with limited resources the focus was industrial action.

“For me, organisers can focus too much on the leverage as it is sexy – wrecking [the employer’s] brand and ruining their meetings. But to be industrial action and not political campaigning, the workers should be the primary fulcrum, where you organise, walk out and shut the service down.”

Building community

The campaigns at SOAS and LSE offered additional opportunities, particularly as both institutions promote their radical social histories.

“Our campaign is workers-led, but students were key as they cannot be fired and can occupy and take direct actions,” Escudero says about the SOAS campaign. “Other tactics have included open meetings, teach-ins, parties, flyering and using media and social media to embarrass the university.”

The LSE campaign also took advantage of the university’s increasingly commercialised approach to its students. “If you see the students as customers, and you really annoy them, then you really go into the heart of the LSE business model. We targeted exams, threatened to disrupt graduation and then they complained to management,” Hughes explains.

The victories of these university cleaners go against the situation of workers the world over, who are facing ever-more precarity. Guy Standing, an associate professor at SOAS and author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, tells Equal Times.

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“Victories raise the morale not only among those directly involved but among others facing similar insecurities, onerous labour conditions and undignified treatment. But the cleaners’ campaigns will also have beneficial effects among students and faculty members, forcing them to think more about social solidarity and the obscenity of growing inequalities.”

For Escudero, from day one, the cleaners fight was about realigning practice with theory and recreating community at SOAS: “They made two classes of workers. I accept lecturers get paid more. But I’m a cleaner and a human being. I have the right to get sick, see my family on holidays or retire after working hard, just like the professors.”

To change the mentality of the broader university community, from the start the campaign called for creating common bonds, rather than just giving support.

“We asked the professors, ‘Is it right you write ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ on the same whiteboard I wipe down afterwards?’ They were shocked. We said to students ‘You are being ripped off paying thousands of pounds to learn about equality, when we clean under the chairs you sit on’. We told them to stand up for themselves, not just us. Changing that mentality was why we won.”

Hughes from LSE says their campaign also took advice from SOAS cleaners to strengthen community connections. “Students would cook breakfast for the cleaners, and eat together which was a great time to meet. The cleaners had been invisible for so many years.”

Victory after many setbacks

The SOAS workers’ victory has come after many setbacks and retribution from both the outsourcing companies and the university management. After the campaign won the London Living Wage in 2008, an emergency meeting was arranged by SOAS and the then outsourcing company ISS. When the cleaners were in the room, doors were locked and the meeting turned out to be an immigration raid: nine workers were deported.

“For me, that was the lowest point in this university’s history. Nine families were destroyed. People had, like me, come here for a better life, to feed their family here and back home.”

As one of the most vocal cleaners, Escudero was also suspended in 2012 on the grounds that he refused to carry out work that he had never been trained to do, on top of his normal workload.

“I was reinstated after two weeks of student protests. This meant we knew the community was behind us.”

Escudero also explains how the campaign was adapted. The first priority was getting to the table to negotiate. After that they had to build the case to be brought in-house, for instance, showing that it cost no more than outsourcing. They even conducted a survey that showed the vast majority of students and staff wanted the contractors to become staff.

And now that they have won, the significance of their struggle is even clearer.

“This should change the future. There is no argument in any university to keep outsourcing. And it is a good example for the British people. Instead of fighting each other, as the government divides British and migrant workers, [our victory shows that] as long as you have the will to fight you can win.”

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