“We are not from another planet”: Justice 4 Cleaners Campaign and the Struggle for Recognition

by | 3 Mar 2014

Subaltern Speak

The on-going struggle of the SOAS Cleaners for acceptable working conditions and equality in the workplace has received some media attention since its inception in 2007–2008. For a thorough and engaging analysis of the history of cleaners’ labour activism across the city, including the massive contributions they have made to the London Living Wage Campaign, see Robert B’s piece “Crisis in the Cleaning Sector”, published in December 2013.

Employed by the outsourced company ISS since 1993, SOAS cleaning staff are deprived of adequate sick pay, pension benefits, and holiday pay. In other words, they are denied the same contractual benefits, job security, and working conditions that those employed directly by SOAS currently have. Working in a de facto segregated environment, SOAS cleaners have overwhelmingly voted to take strike action on March 4th and 5th in their fight for equal working conditions, respect for the value of their labour, and recognition of their dignity as workers.

Educating people about the basic facts of SOAS cleaners’ working conditions has ensured widespread support amongst students, staff, and others. As one part of a broader movement of resistance against the outsourcing and privatisation of various aspects of higher education provision, the Justice 4 Cleaners campaign is a vital part of the struggle for a more democratic, just and fair workplace and place of study. Here, three workers spent their lunch break explaining what the reality of living in London as immigrant workers in precarious, undervalued jobs is like. (As ISS has just suspended union recognition, they were not able to carry out any union-related activities during work hours). Theirs is a much more complex story than we could convey in this short conversation, but our hope is that, despite its brevity, the conversation will increase awareness about some aspects of their working lives, and garner much needed support for their upcoming strike action.

How long have you worked at SOAS?

Patricia: I started working at SOAS in 2008, it’s been almost 6 years. I started working here early in the morning for 2 hours, and for the last 3 years I’ve been working here from 10am till 3pm.

The rules here are to come to work when you are told to come and do the work as you are told. They don’t care if I have to look after my children or not. I have to do what I’ve been told to do, every day. For me it’s really hard because of the fact that they don’t actually take into account that I have to rush to pick up my daughter. If they were a bit more flexible with maybe letting me go 10 minutes before I finish my shift to pick up my daughter, that would be much better. It’s a huge rush. She is 9 years old and she studies in Stamford Hill.

How do you cope with childcare when your child is ill?

Patricia: When my child is sick during the week, I have to rely on friends or someone who is willing to help until I finish my shift. [Patricia is a single mother]. If this doesn’t work out, I have no option but to call and miss the day of work. I won’t get paid if I miss the day of work to look after a sick child.

I believe this is a policy that comes from the company. They don’t actually care about our personal situations. I raised this issue once and I was told it is company policy. My situation is really difficult if something happens with my daughter.

How long have you lived in London for?

Patricia: I have been living in London for 12 years. I migrated from Colombia. I ended up working here [at SOAS] because the shift-work suits me for dealing with my daughter. And I’m only working here because I need to support my family.

Because of the trade union movements in Colombia I believe in the strength of trade unions, and this is why I joined the union.

Can you describe how you feel working in an environment where other workers have better working conditions?

Patricia: I feel bad about it, and feel discriminated against for those reasons. Particularly because of the disparity between the benefits that other workers receive. For example, my daughter suffers from asthma, and despite what happens to her I have to keep coming to work because otherwise I don’t get paid. So even when my child is ill, or I am ill, I have to keep coming to work.

How long have you been working at SOAS for?

Luis Armando: I’ve been working nearly 18 years at SOAS. In my experience the first barrier I had is language. My first language is Spanish, and so I think this was the first barrier for us, to communicate and to express our concerns, to ask questions about our rights. It is when you don’t understand English that abuse and exploitation take place.

When you speak and understand the language you know, it helps you to express your demands, and to know know your rights.

We are called the invisibles here at SOAS. I have been working for 18 years, I have colleagues working here more than me, 20 years, 22 years. For us — in my case — I feel very badly, because I think, I have given everything to SOAS; my youth, my physical health and energy, my knowledge. I understand that I am working for a company. I also understand that the cleaning company makes an investment and that for them it’s a business, and the only thing that matters to them is greater profits and accumulating more capital. But at the same time they have to understand that those with whom they’re contracting are working human beings who give their all to get a wage that will allow them to survive; I want to insist on the fact that those under contract are not machines, they are human beings, and we deserve respect and dignity. Given this, my question is, why does SOAS say no when we ask for these benefits? I don’t understand. Tomorrow, I’m older, I haven’t got any pension, at the moment I haven’t got sick pay, I haven’t got the same holidays as other workers at SOAS. This is a frustration for us.

When I’m sick, you know, I have to come to work, because if I don’t come in, the company doesn’t pay. For me if I lose just one day’s pay it’s a fortune. Because our salaries are not the same as the high rates [paid to others].

That is why we have to work 10, 12 or 14 hours a day. We start at 4am, we are at home 10pm. Sometimes we don’t taste any food, because there is no time. Time is our enemy. That is why we are in this campaign. I think we are very confident in asking for these benefits because it’s not fair. All the cleaners have decided to go on strike, because the company we work for have said no, we can’t pay you these benefits. Why does SOAS say no? The answer is ‘no, you don’t work for SOAS, you work for ISS’. But it’s not true, we work for SOAS, we clean these corridors, these rooms. I want to do the best job possible and I feel responsible for my work.

Roughly how many cleaners at SOAS hold second jobs?

Luis Armando: That’s the problem — nearly all workers have more than one job. Our wages are low. We have to look for another job to cover bills, food, and rent. If you have children, a family, it’s something that is very frustrating, having to pay all of these bills on such low wages. If you get sick, you just get £87 a week. Just rent alone is £100–£120 a week. How will I buy food for my family? How will I pay for travel? If you don’t pay your bills here you end up in court.

There is also tax. We don’t ask for anything free, we also contribute to the state. That is why we ask the question, why does SOAS say no? They say ISS is responsible. But we are giving everything to this place [SOAS].

Ezequiel: We have quite a few cases of people who couldn’t pay their rent when they are ill, they have to choose between buying food, paying rent, and covering other bills.

It’s also important to note that on the second or third job, cleaners don’t get the London Living Wage, they are likely to get £6.19 an hour, not the living wage. If you add up the numbers, they are living on the poverty line unless they work 2 or 3 jobs.

Luis Armando: All the cleaners have decided to go on strike, because ISS has said ‘no benefits’. The second door is SOAS, as we are working here. SOAS has said they also can’t pay these benefits. And this is why we have decided to go on strike, March 4th and 5th.

Where did you migrate from?

Luis Armando: I migrated from Ecuador. It’s important to see that this story has an origin. We are here not because we want to do so out of choice. In our countries there are no jobs, in my country there was corruption. I don’t come from a rich family. I had to escape my country of my own will, leaving behind my family, which is the most precious thing. We have been exiled by poverty, and the blame lies with the corrupt bankers who came up with bank fairs, the turnover of 7 presidents in 10 years, the dollarization of Ecuador, brutal economic packages, forces migration and the destruction of thousands upon thousands of families, and so on and so forth. That is the sad reality.

I’ve got a degree, I’m a mechanical engineer, and I was at university for 5 years. I thought that by travelling to England there would be better conditions here. But it’s not true, really. It’s not true. First thing is the language barrier, to communicate with people and then starting these protests and the intimidation we face.

Ezequiel: When SOAS started to invest 33 million pounds on the North Block of Senate House, we see that none of this money is invested in the people; not the lecturers, the tutors, the cleaners. They are investing in the marketization of education. All of the toilets from the ground floor to the fifth floor have been renovated to the standard of a hotel. The carpets have been replaced. They are investing a lot of money on property but not on human capital. This is a big oxymoron of what SOAS stands for. The reality is that they are full of the logic of the market.

Luis Armando: SOAS is a prestigious university. They want to say that here there is equality, dignity, there is a community, but this is not true. This situation is not just affecting the cleaners, it is affecting everybody. Today, education is being converted into a business.

You are the lecturer, I would like to tell the students why we are going on strike. I would like to tell you that we need your support on those days. The cleaning job is as important as other jobs. It’s not because we are the cleaners that we are second-class; as if we are coming from a different planet! We are humans, we deserve to get these benefits.

Ezequiel: It’s not just the SOAS managers who are complicit with ISS. Last year there was a Sub-Committee constituted by the Governing Body [of SOAS] to consider the financial feasibility of bringing the cleaners in-house. They agreed that UCU and the Student Union would have representation on this committee. The Committee agreed to 20-minute presentations from UCU, Unison and the Student Union, but not the cleaners. Unison refused to sit at the table without cleaners representing themselves. Unison therefore withdrew.

When you go on in the lecture hall talking about whether the subaltern can speak, and you go about talking about orientalism, this is very hypocritical! To what extent are the managers actually representing us?

Can you explain what the general climate for the cleaners is like at the moment, and the implications of the suspension of union recognition?

Ezequiel: ISS has suspended union recognition, to put pressure on the cleaners. The cleaners’ balloting process lasted for 3 weeks. The first day that the ballots were sent to the union members, Paul Cronin from ISS Human Resources came to SOAS first thing in the morning, at 6am. Cleaners were directed to Room G2, and told by Cronin about the consequences of being on strike: that they will be easily replaced because ISS has so many workers on the payroll; and that if ISS lose the contract due to industrial action, there is no guarantee that the company that will take over will pay the London Living Wage. Cleaners felt this “emergency staff meeting” was similar to what happened in 2009, when 9 cleaners were deported for documentation issues.

With regard to union suspension — it means that workers can’t meet during work hours for a union meeting; Unison reps who aren’t employed by ISS can’t make any representations to the employer; they have stopped communicating in an efficient manner with union activists, and the grievances procedures are being ignored.

Workers (cleaning and catering staff) at the University of London recently won some gains relating to sick pay, holiday pay, and zero-hour contracts, after sustained and well-supported strike action. It should be noted however, that there is still much further to go before cleaning staff at the University of London have equal working conditions; as it stands now, workers are only entitled to pension benefits after 7 years of work (and even these do not amount to the same value as other workers); and sick pay entitlements are not available for workers until after 3 months of service. As one worker pointed out, workers are often at their most vulnerable, physically, during the first three months of work when they have often just migrated to the U.K.

For more information on the Justice 4 Cleaners Campaign, and to donate to the strike fund, please see here

Thanks to Alberto Toscano for assistance with the translating, and to Leticia Sabsay for her helpful comments.


  1. Thanks for this. Is it only me thinking that with this sort of behaviour, universities in general, and SOAS specifically here, are morally, if not legally, in breach of their obligations as charitable institutions?

  2. Manuel Barreto: Indeed! He might also have included the example of Pat Loughrey, Warden of Goldsmiths:

    Alessandra: Excellent question. As I understand it, the public benefit requirement under the Charities Act 2006 would have been a way of challenging the direction that HEIs are taking. After 2012 however, the public benefit requirement (which expressly, under the 2006 legislation, stipulated that the poor could not be excluded from a charitable organisation because they could not afford the fees) has been hollowed out. Human rights legislation is not going to help in this instance (i.e. if we were to hold HEIs to account as “public authorities”, a question in and of itself).

    So, I wonder, for any curious law students out there, whether there are other duties that attach to the trust form, or indeed the corporate form that many HEIs take, that might be of help in stemming the direction that HEIs are headed in….


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