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Cleaners employed by multinational contractor ISS at the Vauxhall offices of Capgemini in Vauxhall protested noisily against alleged racist treatment and proposed redundancies and demanded to be paid a living wage.

Capgemini UK describes itself as an “Implementation-focused management consulting and Information Technology services group” and has large offices in a distinctive curved office block at Vauxhall, a mile or so upriver from Westminster. Although it offers outsourcing services covering IT, it outsources cleaning of its Vauxhall offices to another multinational contractor, ISS, “one of the world’s largest facility services providers.”

ISS says its cleaners at Vauxhall don’t work hard enough and want to make some of them redundant in the interests of “efficiency.” The cleaners, all of them members of the IWGB (Industrial Workers of Great Britain) say that their shifts are only just long enough to complete the work asked of them, and made their views clear through their IWGB union representatives. ISS’s response has been to ban the cleaners union reps from representing their members at a consultation meeting, and to try to get the cleaners to leave the IWGB and join a union that would be more compliant to the management demands.

The cleaners also complain of racist slurs, with an ISS senior manager allegedly telling them “you are not British, and you will never be British because you are not my colour”. The cleaners union officials are adamant that they will not negotiate with the racist managers and that they must be replaced.

Although ISS has an annual revenue of £77 billion and had record profits last year, the cleaners are paid at the minimum possible legal level of £6.19 per hour, widely acknowledged to be insufficient to live on in London. They are demanding the London Living Wage, calculated annually by the Greater London Authority (GLA). Boris Johnson announced the current rate of £8.55 per hour in January.

The cleaners struggle is a struggle for fair and decent treatment by their employers, a struggle for justice. As they say, “We are not the dirt we clean!”

Capgemini had circulated workers in the offices about the protest, saying they expected it to be small. I found over 50 protesters gathered in Vauxhall bus station getting ready for the protest, and by the time it was under way there were close to a hundred. And the noise they were making with drums, plastic horns, various cans and whistles was pretty deafening, only lessening when they chanted slogans or listened to a number of short speeches.

Among the protesters supporting the cleaners from Capgemini were cleaners from other sites in London who are also campaigning for a living wage, including the Barbican and the Tower of London. A trade unionist from the RMT came to bring solidarity from the Underground cleaners on the Piccadilly, Northern and Jubilee lines, and there were some other messages of support from trade unions. Many of those taking part in the protest spoke, at least briefly, mainly in Spanish.

The protest was a peaceful one, and the security and other staff at Capgemini watched from inside the foyer; a couple of police officers drove up after around an hour, talked with those inside and then left.

The noisy protest continued for almost two hours, during which a number of people entered and left the offices. Unlike at many protests, almost all of those coming in or out took the flyers that were being handed out by the protesters.

A small group arrived at the protest with placards one of which read ‘Chavez Lives Forever’. Many of the cleaners are from South America and quite a few were intending to go on from the protest to the Venuzuelan embassy.