Cleaners employed through ISS to clean at SOAS University in London were going on strike on the 4th and 5th of March 2014.
The strike is part of their campaign to be employed directly by SOAS on the same sick pay, holidays and pensions as others working for the university, rather than the work being outsourced. Here is the story of one of the cleaners and why she is going on strike:
My name is Consuelo Moreno. I am Colombian and I arrived in London in January of 2002. I came to the UK with my husband and my daughter. I wanted to work to be able to support my family and I was looking for better opportunities for my daughter. Back home, I started studying law but didn’t have the chance to finish my degree.
I am currently working for three different cleaning companies, in three different places. I have to do so in order to survive. I wake up at 2.50 in the morning. I work from 4am to 9am in my first job, from 11 to 1pm in my second job. Then I go home, clean my own house and do some cooking. From 3 pm to 5 pm I see my husband. My daughter comes home at 4.45 but then I have to leave at 5 pm to do another job from 6 pm to 8 am. Then I go back home and we all eat together. When I have time, I like watching movies, going on the seaside, dance salsa.
This is my experience working as outsourced cleaner at SOAS. In January 2004 I began working at SOAS as a cleaner for 5 hours per day. In August of 2005, another company took of over the cleaning services at SOAS and it was at that time when all the problems began. The new management wanted to reduce my working hours by 2 hours per day. I refused to accept this reduction and then I began to be victim of workplace harassment and intimidation. I felt deeply stressed and began to feel fear every day I went to work. It was like a living nightmare.
A friend of mine who knew about my situation advised me to go and talk with UNISON. I went to see the SOAS UNISON representative and he helped me to initiate a grievance procedure against my manager for his attempt to unilaterally reduce my salary and workplace harassment. It was a success. They did not reduce my working hours and they stopped harassing me. However, new problems emerged. We began to have problems with payment to the extent that some colleagues did not receive any pay for 3 months. UNISON once again intervened and the company paid the salaries very quickly.
In 2006, I was elected as worker representative and I began, with my co-representatives, to actively organise our workplace. We formed the Justice for Cleaners SOAS’ campaign. We started to demand union recognition, the London Living Wage, and equal pension, holiday and sick pay to those working directly for the university. In 2008, we achieved 2 of the demands, union recognition and the London Living Wage.
Despite winning the London Living Wage and union recognition, this represented only a partial gain since we were still working under inferior and less favourable conditions than those are employed directly by the university. Moreover, we still suffer from injustice and exploitation. We were continually working to improve our working conditions. In 2009, immigration officers raided SOAS and nine of our colleagues were deported due to their immigration status, including pregnant women. These are only a few of the many problems that we face here at SOAS.
Despite this, I would like to express that I am proud of being with my co-workers fighting for dignity and respect. Since 2011, we began to demand to be brought in-house. I am proud of leading the Justice for Cleaners Campaign alongside my co-workers to bring to an end the two tier workforce, to stop being treated differently from those working directly for the university, to stop being outsourced workers. During this time, we have planned demonstration, meetings, forums, referendums and finally we began the legal procedure to go on strike. The ballot result is possibly one of the most important in British trade unionism with 100% voting YES for strike action.
I would like to tell you as a result of my experience as a cleaner and UNISON representative, I am going to strike to receive the same equal working conditions as those working directly for the University. We clean at a public institution, but still our working conditions are not fair. We are not directly employed by the university and our rights are different from the ones of people who work directly for SOAS. They have more holidays, a better pension and sick pay. There is also a lot of injustice and favouritism, especially when holidays are assigned.
We want to be respected for your job because we do it with respect and honesty. I am going to strike because I believe that it is inhumane to do not receive a decent sick pay. We are being forced to work while being ill or psychically injured. Three years ago, I injured my ankle. Since then, I went through several treatments and my doctors advised me that the only way to recover from the injury was to undergo surgery. However, this would require me to take 5 months off work and I would only receive statutory sick pay which would only be £87.70 a week. I would be unable to provide for my family. I therefore continued working and my condition worsened. But there is nothing I can do at the moment apart from taking more painkillers to bear with the pain.
I am really proud of the way we were able to get organised. I am also proud of the support we get from students, staff and academics at SOAS. We are not afraid any more. I am going to strike to receive a decent pension because after working for so many years, and very long shifts, we deserve to receive a decent pension when we retired and not live below the poverty line.
I am going to strike for dignity and respect for of all outsourced and vulnerable workers. I think that migrants bring a lot to the UK society. Our contribution is positive. We pay taxes, we bring money to the capital of this country, we do jobs that are important for the economy. For the future, I hope that all workers will be organised and able to fight for equality and justice because everyone deserves to be respected. We should all have equal rights and dignity.