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Statement by Cleaners, Porters, Post-Room and Security staff at LSHTM following the senior management’s false and misleading statement on 21 July 2022

Fri, Jul 22, 2022, 1:44 PM

We are appalled by the statement published yesterday (21/07/2022) by LSHTM senior management - a tissue of lies which has clearly been drafted in an attempt to smear us and our union, the IWGB, and to try to delegitimise our campaign against discrimination, low pay and victimisation at this university. Disappointingly, this is not the first time LSHTM has published false statements about us, so we decided that we should also publicly reply.

We are a majority-migrant workforce who worked all through the pandemic but we are paid well below other staff at the University. Our union, the IWGB, represents the majority of our workforce, yet LSHTM refuses to recognise our union and refuses to negotiate with us over pay. We have suffered trade union victimisation that we believe to be unlawful, and to date, six of us have received disciplinary sanctions as a result of our attempt to raise our voices and concerns publicly. We have no guarantee that these sanctions will be lifted once we are insourced.

For many years, we have suffered under a two-tier system at LSHTM, where we have had fewer rights and worse terms and conditions than directly employed colleagues. For example, during the height of the pandemic we were not entitled to proper sick pay despite working in a renowned global health institution. After years of our concerns being ignored by the senior management, in August 2021, LSHTM agreed to bring us in-house and end the discrimination we have experienced. This only happened because we initiated a public campaign with our union, the IWGB. We are due to be transferred in-house on 1 August 2022.

When LSHTM announced its plans to bring staff in-house, we were glad that our concerns were finally being listened to and we were going to be treated with the basic rights and respect that other LSHTM staff benefit from. We were also glad that LSHTM management agreed to regular meetings with our trade union (the union chosen by the majority of our workforce) to discuss the in-housing process and our conditions following insourcing. We believed this signalled a change in the university’s approach and a willingness to treat us as equals with other staff at the university. However, this respectful treatment from management was sadly short-lived.

The management’s approach to these regular meetings with our trade union was shocking. They were hostile to the idea of us – the workers – attending these meetings at all, initially requesting that only officials of our trade union should attend. They failed to provide agendas in advance or translation for meetings where we did attend, despite many of us being migrants who are first language Spanish speakers and are not confident holding such discussions in English. And they refused point blank to discuss pay with us, which is a key issue for us given that we are the lowest paid workers at this university, and we are struggling to get by as a result. We felt this was extremely disrespectful.

We wrote a letter to management on 11 March 2022, signed by a majority of our workforce. Our letter set out our concerns regarding these meetings, what we wanted from the in-housing process, and our demand for management to end pay discrimination and pay us a dignified wage. We made clear that this letter was sent in a spirit of good faith and that we were keen to continue meeting and negotiating over these matters. The response we received on 15 March from Professor Liam Smeeth, the director of LSHTM, was a point blank refusal to discuss pay. In this reply he stated: “At this stage, we do not intend to enter discussions about salary and pay arrangements other than to confirm staff will not suffer a salary detriment as a result of the transfer (in keeping with TUPE regulations).”

Smeeth was saying that he would not bring us onto even the lowest grade on the LSHTM pay scale (grade 1 = £11.30). This was shameful and we felt like we were being treated as second class workers once again. With management refusing to even meet and talk with us, we saw no option but to begin a public campaign to push management to listen to us. Our demands were for fair pay and trade union recognition.

We are currently paid £11.05/hour, which is below the lowest grade on the university pay scale. We are demanding to be brought onto Pay Grade 3 (~£14.50 per hour), which is a grade that other staff with similar levels of responsibility are on and which would be a fair wage that would help us and our families to survive the current cost of living crisis.

After we launched our campaign in April 2022, the senior management clearly realised their position of keeping workers off the pay scale was indefensible, so they publicly announced they would bring us onto the university pay scale when we come in-house, and negotiations would then take place over pay grade. In fact, they informed the public before informing us. However, the management has given us no information regarding what pay grade we will be on, and has said they will negotiate regarding our pay with UNISON, a different union which does not represent our workforce as they have only a handful of members among our workforce.

LSHTM is currently claiming that it has resolved the pay issue, but this is not true. We have had no confirmation that we will be given the pay grade we have requested and have been told that the management does not wish to discuss this with us and our chosen union. We feel the refusal to bring us onto a reasonable pay grade is discriminatory and the refusal to talk with us is extremely disrespectful.

We have also been fighting for trade union recognition. Trade union recognition is when an employer agrees to regular meetings with a trade union to discuss collective issues facing the workforce. This would show a basic level of respect and would require the management to discuss our issues with us. Recognition is normally arranged voluntarily and there is currently no means by which we can legally require the university to recognise our union. After management ignored our request for voluntary recognition, we had to also make it a demand as part of our public campaign.

We launched our public campaign on 21 April 2022 by organising a protest at the university. This protest was a lively and joyful action. We played music, we danced, we chanted our demands, we waved flags and we held up placards. Once we were all gathered, we went up the steps and peacefully entered the Keppel street building in order to hand deliver a collective letter to management with our demands, contrary to what LSHTM claims in its communications. The management called the police on us, who arrived as we were leaving the building. The police left shortly after, as there was no offence committed.

Following this protest, management’s treatment of us shifted from disrespect to outright intimidation and victimisation. They tried to delegitimize our union and terrify us into being quiet. Four of us were suspended by LSHTM’s subcontractor Samsic for taking part in the protest. In the following weeks, two more of our colleagues were also suspended for taking part in union meetings. They had to go through a long and painful disciplinary hearing and were subsequently given written warnings and one of us a first and final warning. Such sanctions place us at risk of being dismissed. We believe that these actions by Samsic were encouraged by LSHTM management. In fact, Samsic stated during the disciplinary process that the suspensions were at the client’s request, although we have not been able to confirm this. We are now in the process of submitting a tribunal claim for trade union detriment and blacklisting against Samsic.

These attempts at union victimisation by management have been utterly disgraceful. Further, they were widely condemned by the public, with around 10 members of parliament speaking out, alongside prominent journalists and public figures. Since then, we have held a number of protests to shine a light on this victimisation and to demand all disciplinary sanctions against our colleagues are withdrawn.

Following the protest on 21 April, LSHTM management also began spreading a false narrative among staff that our protest was violent and intimidating. This is wholly untrue and based on statements from two security staff – a manager and another colleague who has now been promoted to a supervisor role. These managers were and are closely aligned with LSHTM management. This narrative was clearly designed to distract from the management’s discriminatory treatment of us. We find it shocking that the university has decided to use a narrative like this against a group of migrant workers, and we feel that if we were any other group or community we would likely have been treated differently. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for workers who are often ignored and invisible to be treated harshly when we try to speak out.

Over the following weeks, we have continued to communicate with management to request they negotiate with us regarding our demands, but have been rebuffed or ignored each time. We have also written to them to request information regarding the process of transfer in-house, but have not been provided adequate information to date, i.e. a few days before being insourced. The management has, on several occasions, organised meetings with all of us at work. However, they have refused our requests to allow our union representatives to be present, and have also failed to provide key information that we have requested regarding the in-housing process, including whether our length of service will be respected in regard to certain entitlements, whether current reasonable adjustments will be maintained, and any changes to shifts.

As a result of this treatment, we were left with no choice but to strike. Over the last few months we balloted for strike action and we voted unanimously to strike. This week, we held three days of strike action (18-20 July 2022). We will hold further strike action in the coming months until management begins to treat us with respect and meet our demands.

In the run up to the strike, we faced repeated illegal attempts by managers to intimidate us, including managers threatening to cancel annual leave we had booked if we did not tell them which of our colleagues were going to strike.

In their statement yesterday, management has claimed that during our strike, members of the public ‘breached security’ at the building and have again claimed that the protest was not ‘a peaceful action’. The truth is quite different.

During the strike, we discovered that LSHTM’s subcontractor Samsic was making use of agency workers to cover our shifts on these days. Our union’s legal team is concerned that it is a criminal offence, under Regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations 2003. Two of our union officials entered the foyer of the building to report this to the security manager on site and to flag that this was a serious criminal offence and should be stopped immediately. Instead of engaging with this matter, the security manager called the police on the officials. When the police arrived, the union officials left the building with them and the police filed a formal report regarding the use of agency workers to replace workers on strike by the university’s subcontractor. The use of agency workers by an employer to try to break a strike is widely regarded as unacceptable. Calling the police on our union officials for raising concern over this potentially criminal behaviour by the university’s subcontractor is equally unacceptable. It shows the School’s lack of consideration for our rights.

LSHTM management states that our union has led a “campaign of misinformation”, which has led to security and reception staff “being verbally abused and threatened at work”. This is not only untrue, it is a total distortion of the situation. We would expect to see actual evidence supporting such serious claims. The real situation is that we are the majority of the cleaners, porters, post-room and security staff at the university and we have been subjected to a campaign of victimisation and intimidation by the management. The management is using their position of power and their false narrative to try to justify their refusal to engage with us and to try to convince directly employed colleagues not to support us, though many have seen through this and have been supporting us.

The university management can end this dispute at any point. We believe our demands are more than reasonable. All the management has to do is to commit to treat us with the basic respect any person deserves and meet our demands for fair pay, trade union recognition, and an end to union victimisation.

The management’s statement is clearly not reflective of the majority of us who work and study at LSHTM. Liam Smeeth, John Starmer, and Matthew Lee are using their positions to smear and insult us, trying to cover for their ill treatment of us by shifting the narrative to pretend we are the ones lacking “professionalism”. Is it professional to allow managers to threaten us with cancelling our holidays if we do not confirm which of our colleagues are striking? Is it professional to allow strike-breaking agency workers to work on site? Is it professional to ramp up tensions by refusing to discuss and negotiate with us? This senior management team is acting like bullies, when it could just be sitting down and talking with us.

We call on colleagues and students in the university to stand by us, and to call out this bullying narrative. We cannot believe that LSHTM staff, our future colleagues, genuinely felt ‘afraid’ or threatened by a group of workers like us chanting and dancing in front of the School, as the public statements from the senior management has stated. We demand that the senior management team withdraw their false statement and de-escalate this situation by coming to the negotiation table with us.

This statement has been written and authorised collectively by elected IWGB reps, who are cleaners, porters and security staff at LSHTM.

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