by Patrick Laredo
The LSE cleaners strike is the symptom of a country that is increasingly turning into a two-tier workforce; one in which low paid and migrant labour is overworked, underpaid and degraded but expected to smile and carry on without complaining. “No Longer Invisible” read a sign held at the picket line of the LSE cleaners strike on 15 and 16 March, and invisible is precisely what these workers have been for far too long.
The majority of the cleaners, who are employed by outsourced cleaning company Noonan, are from BME and Latin American origin and have been faced with far worse employment conditions than the mostly white staff employed directly by the LSE.
The cleaners became frustrated and decided to take action after several requests, over a number of months, to negotiate better working conditions fell on deaf ears. The cleaners’ union the United Voices of the World (UVW) has said it will announce this week whether further strike action will be taken.
Alarmingly the LSE and Noonan’s silence on the matter does not come as a surprise. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is all too familiar with the treatment of this ‘second tier’ workforce and we fight against the dismal working conditions associated with it every day. The formulation of the IWGB came out of a very similar set of circumstances in which outsourced cleaners at the University of London went on strike after being ignored by the University and their employers Cofely.
Despite an annual turnover of £300 million, the LSE chooses to save money on the cleaners by outsourcing them. This has left the cleaners with inferior employment rights as other LSE in-house staff.
The cleaners demanded that they receive parity of basic terms of employment with the rest of the LSE staff. Presently the cleaners receive statutory employment rights, which leave them on considerably lesser terms than the rest of the in-house staff.
In terms of sick pay the cleaners receive nothing for the first three days they are off and £88 per week afterward, compared to the in-house staff who after five years of service, are entitled to their full salary for 6 months. Maternity & paternity leave is 90% of the cleaners’ full salary for the first six weeks and then £139 per week for the next 33 weeks; compared to the in-house staff who receive their full salary for 18 weeks. The cleaners are allowed 28 days paid annual leave, where LSE in-house staff are allowed 40 days paid annual leave. Lastly the cleaners get 1% pension contribution whereas LSE in-house staff get up to a 16% contribution.
Talking to some of the cleaners on the picket line the day-to-day realities that drive their demands are stark. Michael Lisbie who has worked at the LSE for four years told me that often cleaners force themselves to work when they are sick so as not to miss a day’s pay.
Mildred Simpson, who is 60 years old, has worked at the LSE for 16 years and said that she had to work with an injured knee after falling over whilst working. A doctor had told her to take 4 days off, but she had to work through the pain making her knee worse.
This mistreatment led Mildred to take an instrumental role in calling for action to be taken against LSE and Noonan.
“We are not the dirt we clean” she said. “The strike is not our first resort… we have been waiting for them [LSE & Noonan] to respond to us, respond to our needs. Now they are victimising us. Victimising me personally”.
Mildred was targeted with false allegations of sleeping on the job. This response by LSE and Noonan is part of wider campaign to undermine attempts by the cleaners to unionise with United Voices of the World.
Petros Elia, General Secretary of UVW, claimed that Noonan has been holding back overtime hours so they can use them to bribe workers to not affiliate with his union.
“LSE has been cut-throat in their response to the cleaners. They are excluding, undermining, degrading and disenfranchising their most badly treated and worst paid workers”.
Petros further claimed that the LSE have officially recognised Unison as the union that they are negotiating with. This legally means they can refuse to recognise UVW. Unison, however, is not active in organising, helping or listening to the cleaners and UVW actually has the majority of cleaners as their members.
We reached out to Unison but they did not respond. The LSE responded to this by saying that the “cleaning staff at the LSE have access to a recognised trade union representation through Unison…. Which has a successful track record of campaigning for all its members”.
Refusal to recognise the cleaners preferred union is just another wall of silence and discrimination that these low paid and migrant workers have to hurdle in their pursuit for equality.
Society cannot overcome this two-tier UK without reaching out to these workers and challenging their employers. That is why the IWGB stands in support with United Voices of the World and the cleaners they represent.
The LSE cleaners’ fight for parity of terms and conditions of employment for cleaners seems to be edging toward its goals.