Meet the cleaners leading the fightback against austerity

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In mid-March 2016, during a rally at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Justice for Cleaners spearhead Consuelo Moreno told the crowd of supporters and activists that this could well be their last protest. Negotiations with management had been going better than expected.

Soon their outsourced contract would expire, and they would finally be brought in-house, employed directly by SOAS in Central London and not by their external provider. They were now closer to a successful end to their campaign than they had ever been before.

Unfortunately, the movement’s enthusiasm would be somewhat dampened in the following weeks.

The school administrators had indeed realised that they would have to take the in-house option seriously, but they were determined to kick the issue into the long grass for as long as possible. For weeks students, academics, and supporters including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had been lobbying management to come up with a concrete plan for the in-house transition, but the results were disappointing for all involved.

In its most recent communication with students and staff, SOAS management offered little to no information about the transition process. The only thing that was clear was that management intends to begin the transition process after the cleaners sign a new 5-year outsourcing contract, further proof of their reluctance to give ground to the campaign.

Now, activists in the Justice for Cleaners movement feel like they have been left with no option but to continue campaigning until their demands are finally met. In protest to management’s persistent attempts to deflect the issue, they have called a national demonstration for April 18th.

In an interview with The Canary, Ms. Moreno talked about the cleaners’ determination to keep up the fight for as long as it takes. She said:

SOAS has never come to this position before, but it isn’t enough.

They haven’t given us any concrete dates for when they’ll bring us in-house, nor have they given us anything in writing, or anything that somehow confirms that they’ll bring us in-house. So we’re going to keep on fighting.

Raising the bar

After 10 years of relentless campaigning, the SOAS cleaners have achieved a level of visibility that few other cleaners’ associations can claim in the UK. Thanks to the firm support from their local branch of Unison, as well as from the school’s Student’s Union and the University and College Union (UCU), the cleaners’ campaign has been one of the key priorities among students and staff at SOAS for several years now.

And the results have been impressive. In 2008, they won the London Living Wage, and more recently they won the right to sick pay, holiday and pensions. These are both achievements that most outsourced cleaners in London are finding incredibly difficult to secure. On April 6, two cleaners at Topshop in Central London were suspended for demanding the London Living Wage, and in 2014, three cleaners at John Lewis were arrested for making similar demands.

Topshop and John Lewis are both companies that claim to uphold every worker’s right to a fair pay, and yet their record with regards to cleaners is abysmal. Such mistreatment is possible only because of the outsourcing loophole; when cleaners are outsourced to external agencies, this allows their day-to-day supervisors to shirk any responsibility towards providing dignified working conditions. No worker should ever be allowed to receive such a treatment.

At this point, the only way for cleaners and other outsourced workers to secure basic labour rights such as a real living wage, pensions, sick pay and holiday pay, is to be brought in-house. If cleaners are not employed directly by their workplace, then any of these legitimate demands can be conveniently brushed aside under the pretext that it is not their responsibility, and that any alternative to outsourcing is simply unaffordable.

Consuelo Moreno during a rally at SOAS, University of London / photo via Justice for Cleaners Facebook page.

For a long time, this was SOAS’s main objection to the cleaners’ demands. A recent report by SOAS claimed that bringing the cleaners in-house would cost £350,000 per year, but an independent study carried out by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) has completely disproved these claims. This study, that was commissioned in response to demands from cleaners and activists, found that bringing the cleaners in-house would be “cost neutral”.

Any economic argument against outsourcing simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Lenin Escudero, a prominent member of the Justice for Cleaners movement, spoke to The Canary about senior management’s attitude:

They’re so determined not to give in because most of us are foreigners, so they think we are vulnerable to do whatever they want.

That is the reason for me because there is no economic reason, there is no moral reason, it’s all ideological.

That’s why I think it’s not only a problem for us, but it’s a problem for the whole university, for staff and for students as well.

Students and workers

Year after year, representatives of the Student’s Union have been elected with a mandate to uphold the Justice for Cleaners campaign. A large part of the communal identity in the Student’s Union effectively revolves around supporting the cleaners. Even the school’s alumni have made themselves heard on social media by lobbying management to bring the cleaners in-house.

Simon Campbell, a former student who runs the ‘Alumni for Cleaners In House’ Facebook page, explained to The Canary why the campaign holds such a special place within the school:

The campaign is so important because it not only represents a hard fought and self-organised labour movement, but it also sits at the heart of the SOAS community.

As alumni, we continue to provide solidarity to the cleaners because the struggle for working rights doesn’t disappear when we graduate.

This recognition that cleaners should be treated with the same respect as other members of the SOAS community has provided a great boost to the Justice for Cleaners campaign. It is what has allowed the movement to keep the pressure up and achieve so much over the course of the last decade.

At this point, sources within the campaign are absolutely convinced that it is no longer a question of whether they will be brought in-house or not, but of when the transition will happen.

Moving forward

There is only one clear precedent that shows the feasibility of bringing the cleaners in-house, and it is a model that SOAS could easily reproduce if it wanted to.

In 2008, Queen Mary University in East London spontaneously brought its cleaners in-house after a 6-month transition period. The result was an all-round success. The transition did not result in the huge drain of resources that critics had warned of; on the contrary. The majority of cleaners at the university felt that their working conditions had been massively improved since the transition.

Other studies have also found that outsourcing can often amount to a race to the bottom, as agencies compete to provide services at the lowest cost. In the process, this can worsen the terms and conditions of employment for outsourced cleaners (PDF), and can lead to abuses such as those occurring recently at Topshop and John Lewis.

Ultimately, the reason why these unstoppable cleaners are campaigning so hard to be brought in-house is because it would be nothing short of a life-changing event. When asked about the prospects of a successful end to the campaign, Ms. Moreno told The Canary:

If we actually do this and are brought in-house, it will be a reward for the 10 years of struggle, for all the indignities, hardship and harassment we’ve had to go through.

For the first time we’ll be able to come in and work as equals, and feel as if we’re part of the institution.

This will hopefully be something of an inspiration for other organisations as well, and for others that are fighting this struggle, so that they see that they can do this too.

No matter how you look at it, the benefits of choosing in-house over outsourcing are obvious. SOAS has already admitted to this much in principle. As a self-proclaimed champion of ‘critical thinking’, the time has come for SOAS to practice what it preaches.

Get Involved!

– Sign this petition to show your support with the Justice for Cleaners Campaign.

– Join the national demonstration on April 18, and help us bring an end to the outsourcing of cleaners.

– Boycott Topshop until they start paying their cleaners a living wage.


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