Suds and solidarity: Down on the picket lines with University of London cleaning staff

Outsourced staff, most of them foreign, are striking over pay and conditions

There had been a picket line outside the University of London’s Senate House since 6am, and by 12:30 in the afternoon many protesters were still forming a spirited conga line.

There were red balloons, drums, and the sound system belted out samba beats, as workers turned delivery vehicles away from the gates and booed those who entered the campus. That afternoon, the police presence was limited to a single van and three officers. But it increased to up to 10 vehicles last night, as the university’s chancellor, Princess Anne, visited Senate House for an official engagement, earned herself the moniker "HRH Scab".

For two days of strike action, the university’s cleaners are demanding that their employers, the outsource company Balfour Beatty WorkPlace, give them better holiday arrangements, sick pay, and pensions. “3 Cosas”, or three things, is their campaign slogan.

“This is the most exciting workers protest going,” said PhD student Ashok Kumar, handing out fliers at the protest this morning. “Their demands are so understandable and basic.”

“We’re not allowed to get sick because if we get sick we lose our jobs,” said Sonia Chura over the noise and through a translator. Sonia is a BBW employee at UoL, and is vice chair of the UoL IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain). “We want a dignified pension, which we don’t have now. Any human being is going to age.”   

“University of London, shame on you,” chanted demonstrators. A woman with a megaphone encouraged the crowd to make noise “if you know what it feels like to be bullied.”

Mother of three Veronica Alcivar does. When she became pregnant, Veronica was concerned about telling her employers. “I was afraid of losing my job. I think that as bosses they should make workers feel more comfortable to approach them.”

Things did not improve, as it is alleged that BBW refused to pay Veronica maternity pay for five and a half months, repeatedly failing to accept her proofs of maternity. A heavily pregnant Veronica was hauled into an ‘investigation meeting’, the first step in disciplinary proceedings, without union representation.

“I was psychologically and personally under a lot of pressure,” she sighed. When her union threatened legal action, the company paid up in three days. 

A spokesperson for BBW said that the firm couldn’t make specific comment on Veronica’s case, as it is still an ongoing employment tribunal.

Veronica is not alone. Just along the square, private-sector cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies are in the midst of fighting to be brought in-house by the university, in order to secure a similar package of basic rights.

And students at the University of Sussex have reoccupied part of the Falmer campus in protest against the outsourcing of vital services – which the university insists is a vital money-saving measure.

SOAS’ director, Professor Paul Webley, says that outsourcing is essential. “We are a small organisation and outsourcing provides a variety of benefits, including resilience and economies of scale,” he commented.

Adam Wurf, a spokesperson for ISS, which has 69 employees at SOAS, pointed out that ISS had been the first major outsourcer in the UK to sign up to the Living Wage accreditation program: “We do take their [workers'] concerns and wishes seriously. At the same time we are a commercial organisation.”

“The University treats us like second class workers, but we work at the university also,” says Sonia Chura. It’s not hard to sympathise with the aims of these campaigns: to secure basic rights and recognition, and to be able to truly belong to the institutions their workers serve.

Perhaps this discomfort is filtering through to university boards. Professor Webley also said that “confidential” discussions have been ongoing since July between several London colleges to establish a “shared service”, in which “employees... would have improved terms and conditions of employment.” But “they would not be equivalent to those of directly employed staff.”

In a statement, Balfour Beatty WorkPlace insisted that it paid all its University of London staff the London Living Wage (£8.80 per hour).

It added: “Balfour Beatty WorkPlace has been in ongoing talks with Unison, the union recognised by BBW and the University of London and have today agreed improved pay and conditions for employees on this contract.”

A spokesperson for the University of London said that it was “disappointed by” the level of intimidation from the 3Cosas campaign, but that impact on its day-to-day running had been “minimal”.

Tomorrow, students and staff of the J4C (Justice for Cleaners) campaign will meet at SOAS to discuss further courses of action. They may be able to hear the drums from the “3 Cosas” demonstrators from down the street.