Migrant cleaners’ strike threat as they demand same rights as white government colleagues

Union members say they have been denied the London living wage, plus the annual leave and sick pay entitlement that white-collar workers at the department receive

Nadine White
Race Correspondent
Saturday 13 April 2024 11:08 BST
Workers say they are struggling to make ends meet
Workers say they are struggling to make ends meet (UVW)

Migrant cleaners working at the Department for Education (DfE) are threatening strike action over pay as well as concerns that Black workers are not being afforded the same rights as their predominantly white colleagues.

Union members say they have been denied the London living wage of £13.15 per hour, plus the annual leave and sick pay entitlement that white-collar workers at the department receive.

A union representing the staff members has accused the government of failing to “treat the workers with dignity”.

Given the higher cost of living in the capital, the London living wage is set above the national minimum wage rate, which is currently £11.44 for workers who are 21 and over.

The outsourced workers, who clean offices within the department’s Sanctuary Buildings headquarters, say they are struggling financially and are preparing to go on strike this summer.

Milgo Jama, a cleaner of 31 years at the DfE who plans to vote in favour of strike action, told The Independent that poor working conditions, including low pay, mean that she struggles to make ends meet during the ongoing cost of living crisis.

“Everything has increased – rent and utility bills – yet our wages have remained the same,” the mum of four said. “Meanwhile, our workloads have also increased, and lots of people have quit because they can’t cope with this management.

“Going to work each day is hard because you have to face these people and conditions. I’ve been wanting to leave this job for a while, but I’ve been working here for a long time and hope things will improve.”

Gloria Mancera, a cleaner of 18 years at the DfE who also wants to strike, said: “In my 18 years as a cleaner at DfE I’ve never experienced such terrible treatment. “No sick pay, too much work, no proper holiday cover. We are treated with disdain, and we are fed up and stressed but united in our resolve. We can’t wait for our ballot papers.”


A United Voices of The World (UVW) union spokesperson said: “The system of outsourcing allows companies to offer inferior terms and conditions for the outsourced cleaner workforce, which happens to be made up mostly of workers from ethnic minority and migrant backgrounds because of matters of historical structural racism.

“While the policy itself does not intend to target the workers because of their ethnicity, it’s nevertheless disproportionally detrimental to Black, brown and migrant workers, which it could be argued is a form of indirect race discrimination.

“The DfE workers have the same right as any other workers, to be treated with the same dignity, and to be offered equivalent terms and conditions to other workers in their building/workplace, regardless of whether they are outsourced to a private contractor or not.”

Milgo Jama, a mum of four, has worked at the DfE for 31 years (UVW)

Contractor ISS UK Limited, which outsources the cleaners to the Government Property Agency, has refused to negotiate – following “numerous attempts”, the union said – over the cleaners’ demands for a living wage, equal sick pay and annual leave with civil service workers, and appropriate staffing levels.

The UVW members went on strike in the summer of 2023 over this issue, which has yet to be resolved.

According to the UVW union, the staff are also grappling with a “considerable increase” in their workload over recent years caused by cuts to staffing levels, and the government has been urged to address this.

The UVW has represented thousands of low-paid, migrant workers since its founding in 2014. According to the union, most outsourced Black, brown and migrant cleaners are subject to inferior terms and conditions compared with the people they work alongside.

The union added: “The DfE cleaners deserve to feel valued, and they deserve dignity, respect, and above all equality with the civil servants, their suit-wearing counterparts. It is unconscionable that in 2024, a government department is being run by a two-tier workforce where the mainly Black, brown and migrant cleaners are treated like second-class citizens.”

A spokesperson for ISS UK&I said: “We value the contribution of every ISS team member and will continue to work towards a resolution. We are disappointed that this ballot is going ahead.” They declined to comment on whether they would negotiate.

A government spokesperson said: “These staff members are employed by an external contractor and are not directly employed by the government. The contracts are owned by the Government Property Agency, not by the Department for Education.

“The Government Property Agency ensures contractors abide by current employment legislation. It encourages contractors and the union to cooperate to resolve the dispute.”

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