Cleaners employed through ISS to clean at SOAS University in London went on strike on the 4th and 5th of March 2014.
The strike was 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 he decided to go on strike:
My name is Lenin Escudero, I am 37 years old. I come from Ecuador and have been living in London since 2000. Back home I was a professional footballer until I got an injury at 21 and had to stop playing. I also have a degree in teaching Physical Education. I came to the UK to find a better life because at home, all doors were closed. I saw the UK as country of opportunities and equal rights.
I work 15 hours a day as a cleaner, including for SOAS University where I have been working since 2003. I used to work even more, 7 days a week, 16-18 hours a day, now I don't work weekends any more. Monday-Friday I start working at three in the morning. I clean offices in central London from 3am to 5:45am, then start at SOAS University from 6am to 4:30 pm where I do clean-up work of classrooms, bathrooms and communal areas and move furniture. In the evening I work at the HSBC bank as a cleaner from 5:30pm to 8:30pm. It has been very hard.
One of the weakest points in my life is the lack of time I could spend with my family. By the time I arrive at home at 8pm, my kids have to go to bed. It has affected me a lot that I have spent so little time communicating with them. It is not because I don't want to, it is because the lack of time. At the end of the day we try to manage to continue living because we don't have any other option. I am the only one working, as my wife looks after our three kids. I don't work these long hours to save up money, I just work to survive, to feed my family.
I would like to cut the hours, but I can't because the income is very important for my family and also we have family back home that I am supporting: my parents and my wife's parents. But the few moments I have, I try to spend a lot of time with the children and my wife. When the children were little, they would ask me, 'why do you not spend more time at home with us? Why do you work too much? Why do you not find another job? Why can't you be a footballer?'
They questioned why I work as a cleaner. So I have explained to them about that. I would have liked to work in my field (physical education) but I would need to study again to re-qualify and I can't take time off to study again to do that when I have to make a living. I have also brought the children with me sometimes to another cleaning job and showed them what I did. And I explained to them, 'I do cleaning now, but I don't want you to do this job, I want you to do something better. I want you to study hard.' It is not a bad profession, but it is not well paid.
The children know about the campaign I have been involved in with the other cleaners at SOAS. They know what we are fighting for. I don't feel we have fair pay and conditions. At the beginning I thought we had equal conditions, but then I would met other staff from the university, and when they were sick they would be able to take the time off they needed. But when got an injury I had a risk to lose my flat because of the low sick pay. It was in 2003.
I had an accident: chairs fell on my feet and I lost three of my toenails. I was unable to work for three weeks, and only received Statutory Sick Pay of £84 pounds per week, which was not enough to pay my rent and to make ends meet. I could not provide food for my family and I was even at risk to be evicted from my house because I couldn’t pay my rent. I had to take a loan from the bank to cover my expenses. It was very stressful for me and my family. The doctor had given me a full month for Disability, but I had to return to work while still not been fully recovered from the accident.
If I had the same sick pay as other workers at SOAS, I could have taken the time off I needed to fully recover and I would not suffer from economic difficulties such as struggling to pay my expenses. Thank God that I haven’t had any other accident since then. I would not want to go through that bad experience again, because with the Statutory Sick Pay no one can survive.
At one point we went 3 months without pay for some of our work. This was while working for the previous company the cleaning was outsourced to. So what happened is that out of 30 cleaners, 12 cleaners left and that's what they wanted it seemed, because as soon as they left the vacancies weren't filled. The people who were left had no other option but to seek advice. That is why we went to Unison. We told them about the situation and they organised a meeting. There were 30 cleaners with the same situation between the two SOAS campuses. We asked them for help to get the 3 month’s salary but then this led to them explaining to us about the London living wage, so in 2006 we started to campaign for this and for union recognition and also to be brought back in house.
I come from a background where all my family are politically involved. My mother was in the top of the party, she was involved with. Around the time when I was born, she had to hide because of her political involvement. But I was the only one never involved in any political things in Ecuador. I only liked football. So I grew up with this, but I didn't know how to do it myself. It just started here because they wanted to cut my hours. I worked 8 hours and they wanted to cut them to 5 and a half. So I went to seek advice from the union and I was told that they couldn't just do that.
I started to challenge the situation, without knowing the law. And then we started to organise. The people appointed me as a union representative and I have been one for almost 7 years. I took a lot of courses as a union rep and I have a lot of experience in the campaign now, speak publicly about these issues and feel more confident. I speak publicly about these issues.
The campaign was eventually successful in achieving the living wage and union recognition, but not being brought in house and we are still fighting for this and for dignified treatment. Here is another example why: In 2012, I was working with my co-worker in the bathrooms on the first floor when my manager called me and asked us to go to the first floor to clean the male bathrooms. He gave us the order that from the next day, I would have to begin to clean tops, around toilets and walls and floors.
I expressed my concerns regarding why we had to do a job that we have never done before. We have never done 'deep cleaning'. I have not been trained to do 'deep cleaning' so I was not able to do it. The issue was that the person normally doing this job was on holiday and had not been replaced, so the job was not done. Moreover, those toilets had not been cleaned properly for a long time, so the bathrooms were shabby. Despite this, my manger wanted us to clean them properly.
This difficult work was added on top of our other daily duties. But I was not going to receive any pay for the extra work. My manager said that he saw no problem for me to do what I was asked to do, but I told him I wouldn't do it because it didn't not seem reasonable that he was increasing my workload when the issue was that the cleaner, who was on holiday should have been replaced.
The next day I was suspended on the grounds that I didn’t want to follow reasonable instructions from my manager. At this time we had raised a grievance against the Company, because they were not following the agreements made between Unison and the company. They knew I was one of the people behind the grievance. I think that is why they came here and asked me to do the extra job cleaning the bathroom etc. They knew I was going to say no, so they could say you didn't follow instructions, and could suspend me. I was suspended for two months, but they didn't expect that people were behind me.
Unison organised a demonstration together with the student union (UCU) and the union for the academics and because of the pressure, I got my job back. So instead of getting me to stop, I am more determined to continue the campaign because I know people are behind me. At the beginning the other staff and students didn't understand about the campaign because they saw our work conditions as legal. And it is legal to outsource the work. But if you are outsourced, you only get the statutory sick pay, holidays and pension. And we don't think it is fair that we don't have the conditions of the other SOAS employees, especially because we are working for an educational institution that is teaching every day about equality and human rights.
They say that 'At SOAS everyone is treated equally and with dignity' and that is not true because the cleaners are not treated equally. So we started to raise our voice and people started to understand it. Because in the beginning some of them thought, 'well you work for an external company, why are you complaining to SOAS?'
SOAS is the main boss, it is still their responsibility. If they want to hire a cleaning company, they should hire one with equal work conditions because otherwise it doesn't make sense that their policies say that there is equality for everyone who work under the same roof. We do an important job so why should we be treated differently, we are human beings. We have more risk of getting sick than anyone.
Because we work moving furniture, we work with chemicals, we work in contact with bacteria every single day, so why we don't have the right to get sick pay? Over Christmas they turned off the heating in the building while we had to clean. We had to work in below ten degree temperature. And when we get old after working 20 or 30 years in this job, there is only statutory pension and how can you survive on that?
I also believe it is important for the outside world to know about this. Because this is not only a problem here, it is a problem everywhere people are working for outsourced cleaning companies. Maybe you don't hear about it in other places because they are like us in 2006 when we didn't know yet how to organise and they are afraid to speak out. Because as soon as you start to speak out you are victimised by the cleaning company. They don't victimise you directly, no they say 'no, this is still dirty' or if you are sitting down, they tell you ‘no, you can’t sit down.’ And at the end of the day you get scared. But we have to continue fighting.
The campaign is fair because we are fighting for equality and for justice. And we believe that everyone at this University needs to be treated with the same terms and conditions. We don't believe in second class workers, especially not at this university. These are some of the reasons why I am going on strike for equal sick pay, holidays, pension, and for dignity and respect.