For the first time in LSE’s 126 year history, cleaners went on a 2-day strike for equal benefits as in-house staff. The demands of the strike highlight the larger problem with outsourcing in UK universities.
Mildred Simpson, 60 years old, has spent the past 16 years trying to keep the London School of Economics spotless. One of the cleaners at the leading research institute into inequalities, she works 11 hours a day, under contract from Noonan Services (a company that outsources cleaning staff to UK universities).
Yet the benefits she receives are negligible compared to LSE in-house staff- 1% pension, no sick pay for the first 3 days- and workload that has cost her a knee. So she’s on strike.
The conditions of the strike, i.e., the two-tier system of treatment and benefits, is a product of the capitalist exploitation of workers under outsourcing, most of whom are migrants and therefore subject to racial discrimination.
Government funding to UK colleges has reduced by 25% since 2010, and UK universities have attempted to use outsourcing to minimise costs. However, the terms of employment offered to outsourced cleaners are inferior, with almost no sick pay, negligible employer contribution to pensions, and excessive workload that have resulted in accidents and severe health problems among the workers.
A report by Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI) at London Metropolitan University however, found that “there is remarkably little concrete evidence suggesting outsourcing public services was in the public interest.” Another report by Cardiff University for the National Audit Office found that there was no evaluation of the costs and quality post-outsourcing, noting that “the absence of solid evidence proving the advantages of outsourcing is because the much vaunted advantages are few and far between.”
The profits of the outsourcing companies concerned, however, have soared. In 2015 Noonan Services, owned by Alchemy Partners and run by an exclusively white and male executive board, made record revenues of €303m, a total €100m more than their turnover the previous year. At LSE, the cleaners, an overwhelming majority of whom are migrants, get 28 days of annual leave entitlement per year, as opposed to the in-house 41, with only 1% employer contribution for their pension in contrast to the 13%-16% for in-house staff. They receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), which entitles them to no pay during the first 3 days of sick leave and only £88.45 per week from the 4th consecutive day. Therefore, most cleaners jeopardise their health because they cannot afford to miss work.
Their demands for the strike are to receive the same sick pay, annual leave entitlement, pensions, maternity/paternity/adoption leave pay as LSE in-house staff, along with a reduction of the workload and re-instatement of Alba Pasmino, one of the cleaners dismissed with 2 days notice after 12 years of service.
Workers vs. the establishment
Noonan Services, contracted by LSE, doesn’t have the best track record for workers’ rights– in January 2016, they were forced to pay €50,000 to a pregnant woman who had successfully sued them for discrimination, while in December, a contract cleaner in Ireland won the case against Noonan, whose methods were described as “fatally flawed” by the Irish Labour Court. When homophobic discrimination against an LSE cleaner by a Noonan manager was brought to light, Noonan only began investigating after six weeks. Westminster World made repeated requests for comment to Noonan Services in response to the LSE strike, but was refused a statement and informed that the “CEO is aware of the requests”.
A spokesperson for LSE told Westminster World that UVW was an “unaffiliated union representing 60 of the 421 cleaning staff employed by Noonan”. LSE management had, prior to the strike, attempted to ban Petros Elia, the General Secretary of United Voices of the World Union representing the LSE cleaners on strike. “The cleaning staff at LSE have access to recognised trade union representation through UNISON, which has a successful track record in campaigning for its members. Unison, LSE and Noonan recently signed a formal partnership to discuss and resolve the cleaners’ concerns. This partnership provides Noonan staff with a dedicated forum where they can directly raise requests with their employer.”
In the correspondence made available to Westminster World, it was found that UNISON had written a letter to all LSE cleaning staff, stating that strike action “at this stage would be both reckless and potentially put jobs at risk.” UVW, representing the cleaners, described the wording as “a veiled threat [to the cleaners] that they would be fired if they were to go on strike”.
This is not the first time that UNISON, the largest trade union in the UK, has been accused of colluding with management against the workers’ interests. In 2014, based on confidential documents leaked from the University of London, the Guardian reported that UNISON officials were trying to “counter” the 3cosas campaign of the workers it claimed to represent. 3cosas was a successful campaign initiated by migrant workers striking for the same sick pay, pensions and holidays the in-house staff were given; demands similar to the LSE cleaners on strike. UNISON was also accused of calling the police on the workers it claimed to represent, who were demonstrating outside their offices against alleged election intransparency.
However, in a statement to Westminster World on the LSE Cleaners’s Strike, UNISON stated that their members had been “leading negotiations with LSE and their employer, Noonan, since November 2016.” Echoing LSE’s comment on living wage, a UNISON spokesperson further stated: “UNISON supports everyone’s right to go on strike. As negotiations are ongoing, UNISON members have not yet been balloted for industrial action and were not on strike recently.”
Strike vs LSE
At LSE, students and union representatives organised teachouts, direct action, rallies and dance lessons over the 15th and 16th of March.
Schedule for strike action, 15th-16th March 2017:
On the first day of the strike, students occupied the LSE Vera Anstey Suite in solidarity with LSE cleaners’ struggle. In response, LSE management denied the students access to toilets, and according to allegations by protesting students, used intimidation to disrupt the occupation. At 10pm, LSE security “sawed through the locks”, dispersing the protesting students. Lisa McKenzie, a research fellow at LSE, was arrested “on suspicion of assault”
A spokesperson for LSE called the strike action “disappointing” as “negotiations were underway with union representatives”, namely UNISON. The cleaners were offered 10 days paid sick leave annually by LSE management prior to the strike action, an offer unanimously rejected by the cleaners who demanded the same sick pay entitlement as LSE in-house staff: 6 months full pay or half pay annually, depending on length of service. LSE also failed to address the other demands made by the union on behalf of the cleaners, asserting the fact that the cleaners received minimum wage. During the 2013 cleaners’ strike at University of London, Balfour Beatty Workplace, the company contracted for cleaning services, had also released a similar statement in response, focusing on minimum wage and not addressing the benefits demanded by the workers in the strike.
Strikes vs segregation for profit
The past few years have seen an increase in cleaning staff strikes at UK universities for the same benefits as in-house staff. In 2014, outsourced cleaning staff from ISS at SOAS went on a 3-day strike action over the same pensions, sick pay and holiday leave as in-house staff. Earlier in 2009, when SOAS cleaners were agitating for the London Living Wage, 9 of the cleaners were detained by immigration officials as “illegal immigrants”, which resulted in protests, prompting the SOAS Directorate to negotiate with the Home Office for their indefinite leave to remain. However, it eventually resulted in deportation of all 9 cleaners in detention, including a pregnant woman.
ISS, which employs more than half a million cleaners for outsourcing to universities and companies such as Hilton, Barclays, and Nordea, reported a profit of $120.3 million in its fourth quarter last year. It also provided security services to illegal Israeli settlements on Palestine’s West Bank, which when brought to light prompted ISS to sell the Israeli security company. The sales resulted in EQT Partners and Goldman Sachs raking in $670m in profits from the sale of their shares in ISS. SOAS incidentally also runs a Centre for Palestine Studies (CPS) under the SOAS London Middle East Institute.
More damningly, a report on SOAS maintenance contracts by APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) in February found that the cost difference between outsourcing cleaners and hiring in-house ones was negligible. A previously unpublished report also revealed that outsourcing cleaners would cost SOAS £2.3 million more over five years, contradicting SOAS management’s argument that outsourcing was cheaper.
At King’s College, cleaners outsourced by Servest went on strike in January to demand the raised Minimum Wage of £9.75, paid sick leave and reduction of the excessive workload. As at LSE, the workload has resulted in accidents, including hospitalisation of cleaners. To compensate for the missed wages on the two days of the strike, students set up a crowdfunding campaign.
Alchemy Partners, which acquired Noonan Services in 2008 for €90m, is reportedly looking to sell it for €200m. Goldman Sachs is one of the leading investors in Alchemy Partners. Servest on the other hand reported annual revenues of £240m in 2016, with a growth in operating profits from £7.8m to £10.4m. Servest cleaners went on strike in January of this year over demands of parity of pay and annual leave with in-house Great Western Railway, and better safety clothing. In the same month, Servest secured itself on the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS) Corporate Ethical Register, awarded, ironically, for “accountability, ethical practice, professionalism and understanding and commitment.” Kagiso Tiso Holdings (KTH), one of the largest majority Black-owned facilities management company in Africa, acquired 51% of Servest for £290m in 2015.
In May of last year, members of the University and College Union (UCU) went on strike against the offered 1.1% pay increase from the 14.5% pay cut in 2009. Strikes and actions were held at universities of Edinburgh, Kent, Sussex, Glasgow, Bath, Bristol, Winchester, West of Scotland. UNISON, representing 4,000 workers at universities in the UK who were paid below the then living wage of £7.65 an hour or £8.80 in London, supported the strike.
The cleaners’ strike received overwhelming support from MPs, LSE staff and students, as well as students from King’s College, SOAS and organisations like Feminist Fightback. UVW crowdfunded the salaries of all striking LSE cleaners for the 2 days of strike.
The following is a statement in support of the LSE Cleaners’ demands from Parliament:
Open letter by students and professors of LSE Inequalities Institute in support of the cleaners:
The strike: In Pictures
The cleaners’, represented by UVW, are currently in negotiation with LSE management. For updates, follow Justice for LSE Cleaners on Facebook and Twitter.
Multimedia: Manisha Ganguly