Max Leak reports on how cleaners and support workers at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, represented by the UNISON union, have emerged victorious from a campaign to force the institution to bring its workers in-house.
Management have committed to introducing a new agreement by September 2018, stating that “current staff in central facilities teams will be directly employed by the university”, and that, therefore, “they will be on equal pay and conditions with existing SOAS employees.” The change will bring an end to the long-standing practice of employing most cleaners and support staff as agency workers, with no right to equality of conditions with counter-parts employed by SOAS.
While the university’s authorities have already moved to make a virtue out of necessity, highlighting that the new arrangement will make them one of the less exploitative employers in the higher education sector, the reality is that the outcome represents a total defeat for management following years of sustained resistance to workers’ demands. The Justice for Workers Campaign (originally known as Justice for Cleaners) was formed in 2006, and has fought doggedly ever since for incremental improvements in pay and conditions, facing vicious hostility from the university’s directors at every stage.
Virtually all SOAS cleaners and low-paid support workers are migrants, mostly from non-EU countries, and the campaign has had to weather systematic attempts by management to exploit this vulnerable legal status, on top of standard delaying and intimidation tactics. One particular moral nadir came in 2009, when management coordinated the arrest and deportation of 9 trade union activists by the UK Border Agency.
In the face of this adversity, workers have based their strategy not only on their solidarity with one another, but also on taking their case to the wider public and student body. Taking advantage of SOAS’s position as a public-facing institution with much to lose from visible tension between students and directors, workers have deployed open protests, marches and occupations alongside traditional strikes and slowdowns. These were effective in building external pressure upon SOAS and have also provided a focal point (not to mention a litmus test) for progressive student activists in Central London.
The work involved in cultivating this auxiliary movement should not be underestimated. In marked contrast with the prevailing stereotype of university campuses as hotbeds of left-wing radicalism, some students’ reactions to a related campaign among cleaners at the London School of Economics (LSE) were noted to be cold or even hostile.
Management at both LSE and SOAS have consciously attempted to drive a wedge between students and workers. After one recent peaceful action at LSE, for example, management claimed that “protesters appear to be deliberately targeting buildings where students are working.” Such attempts to gain the moral high-ground over striking low-paid workers may be unconvincing to most observers, but they serve to give the more reactionary elements of the student body a license to be hostile to the workers’ actions.
Another enduring lesson to be gleaned from the string of victories achieved by Justice for Workers and their allies has been that migrant workers are not simply passive objects of state policy or the pawns of exploitative employers. Despite facing, as workers subject to immigration controls, multiple forms of pressure and harassment, they showed no sign of submitting meekly to exploitation. In fact, in total contradiction to the assumptions of some left-of-centre opponents of freedom of movement, it is migrant workers, including the very most vulnerable and underpaid, who have time and again led the charge for improved pay and conditions in their workplaces. In the process, they have given birth to campaigns which has challenged racism and border controls at the same time as making gains for workers.
While the latest concession from management is a landmark victory, cleaners at SOAS and elsewhere know that there can be no cessation of the ongoing fight for more liveable wages and more dignified working conditions. Struggles continue, at SOAS and at many other University of London institutions, as well as in the less public-facing, less easily pressured businesses where most agency workers find themselves intermittently employed. As the victory statement of Justice for Workers puts it:
“There is more work to do, holding SOAS accountable and showing solidarity with our friends and fellow communities… This victory is one of many to come.
La lucha continua!”