Marsh, the world's largest insurance broker, was criticised by union leaders after it demanded the suspension of 12 contract cleaners employed at its headquarters in the City of London for holding a protest over pay and working conditions.
The cleaners, most of whom are Polish and have worked in the Marsh offices for more than a year, held a demonstration last week after finishing a 12-hour night shift. When the company heard about the action, it demanded that the workers, who are employed by the facilities contractor ISS, be stopped from working at Marsh with immediate effect.
"This is an absolute infringement of people's right to free speech and protest," said Paul Davies, the campaign manager for the trade union Unite, which organised the demonstration. "People should be allowed to say 'I've been wronged' and not be punished for it."
ISS, which is part-owned by Goldman Sachs, has now suspended the cleaners on full pay and is trying to transfer them to other locations around the capital over the next few days. "We don't like to lose good people," a spokesman for the company said.
The cleaners – who are currently paid £5.60 an hour, which is 8p more per hour than the national minimum wage – are campaigning for the London Living Wage, which is £7.20 per hour.
One of the cleaners, who did not want to be identified, spoke of night shifts spent clearing hundreds of desks. He said that he did not speak English and "knew his place", but that he wanted to be treated "like a human being".
According to Neil Jameson, of London Citizens, part of the Citizen Organising Foundation (COF), the blame in this latest case lies squarely with the client and not the contractor. "ISS have a proven track record in paying cleaners the living wage, whereas the naivety Marsh is showing in refusing to cough up extra funds is verging on the prehistoric," he said.
"We're seeing major social upheaval across the country, with workers in cities standing up to obscene pay discrepancies in some of our wealthiest institutions. Marsh needs to wake up and catch up – fast," he added.
Marsh refused to comment yesterday.
Thursday morning's protest, part of Unite's Justice for Cleaners campaign, is part of a broader move to improve pay and conditions for these workers throughout the country.
There are more than 1.5 million cleaners employed in Britain, with an estimated 20,000 working in London alone, and many of them migrants with minimal English.
In the past two years, leading banks and financial services firms including Barclays, HSBC, Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse have agreed to ensure that cleaners working in their offices are paid £7.20 per hour. Their agreement has come as a result of sustained pressure from London Citizens, the capital's largest community organisation, of which Unite is a member.
Living Wage: The partners
The following companies,institutions and organisations have made a commitment to pay their cleaners at least £7.20 per hour.
* Banking & Finance
Royal Bank of Scotland
Queen Mary's University
London School of Economics and Political Science
* Government & third sector
Institute for Public PolicyResearch
London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority
London 2012 Olympic Delivery Authority (agrees to pay living wage to all contractors and sub-contractors on the Olympic site)
The Hilton GroupReuse content