Cleaners employed through ISS to clean at SOAS University in London went 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 Marta Rey. I am 55 and I came from Colombia in 1995. I had a good job in Colombia. I was a travel agent and owned my own agency, but when I came to the UK, I got a job as a cleaner. I would like to tell you about one of my experiences working for cleaning companies contracted to clean SOAS University.
I started working for SOAS eight years ago. I used to work eight hours a day, sometimes ten hours or even more. My job was like a marathon. There was a building I had to clean on my own. I only had one hour to clean six levels, including the toilets, kitchen and gallery. Nowadays, four people are cleaning this building and they have two hours to do the job.
I was running all the time. As a result of this, on the 6th of February 2007, I tripped with a Hoover and fell on the cemented floor. I hurt my forehead, nose and mouth and suffered cuts to my upper lip as well as slightly breaking my two front teeth. I made my way to the manager’s office. He made a report of the accident but didn’t offer any help. He told me that I was free to go but didn’t take me to the hospital. I was in a state of shock as well as bleeding from the mouth but I left the building on my own. I made my way from Russell Square to King’s College Hospital.
I am still wondering how I was able to get there by myself because I cannot remember whether I took a bus or a taxi. I only remember watching my daughter walk through the Accident and Emergency room to make me company. At the hospital, I was given a 10 day sickness leave, which was validated by my GP the next day. The cleaning company never reimbursed me the money that I had to spend at the dentist in order to fix my teeth. But I got the biggest surprise when I received my payment later on that month: the 10 days of validated sickness leave had been taken off my pay. They discounted £278. The manager first said that it was because he lost the paper from the GP. But I went back to the GP to ask for a copy, which I was charged £15 for and gave it to the manager.
I still have not been paid the money taken off my salary. After the accident I had to attend many more appointments with my GP due to the strong headaches and the pain in both my ears that I was getting as a consequence of the impact when I fell on my face. The hours I had to attend my GP were also discounted from my monthly pay.
As a result of this, I ask myself: Dignity at SOAS? Maybe, but not for us the cleaners that have to suffer continuous abuse from our employers without SOAS caring much though they both benefit from our hard work. It is not just about me. There are a lot of people like me but they don’t say anything. There are people who have been working without contract. There is also much favouritism, especially when it comes to holidays or longer time off to go to your home country.
That’s why we don’t want to work for subcontracted companies. We want to work directly for SOAS University. Companies don’t care about us. We are just a number, nothing more. They don’t appreciate our work. We deserve better conditions, especially because we work very hard. Imagine SOAS without cleaners! It would be a sanitary emergency! With all the rubbish inside and the toilets dirty!
I have worked very hard here, I had to clean, but that’s no matter. Now my children have their life in the UK and they are happy and progressing here. I didn’t lose my time here. However, I still want the work I do to be respected and for us cleaners to have our dignity. This is why I am going on strike on the 4 and 5 March 2014.
I am going on strike for sick leave paid in times needed, I am going on strike for a fair holiday to spend more time with my family, I am going on strike for a decent pension so that when I retire I can survive without the need of other persons.
Photo: Marta (on the left) together with Fanny, Migrant Voice volunteer