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By Greg Sproston, Managing Editor.
There was a mood of defiance and cautious optimism outside the Saw Swee Hock centre on Friday afternoon as students and others stood in solidarity with cleaners in condemnation of the treatment of staff on outsourced contracts. The event, advertised on Facebook as ‘Reinstate Alba: Justice for LSE Cleaners’ attracted a crowd of approximately 200.
The organisers of the demo, the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, allege that their member Alba – who has worked at the LSE for 12 years – was made redundant with just two days notice by Noonan, an Irish firm who provide ‘strategic outsourcing solutions’ to the LSE. The redundancy was due to the removal of 5 supervisor positions, which UVW claim that the decision was made for unnecessary cost-cutting reasons. The LSE are thought to dispute this version of events, but have declined to comment specifically on individual cases. More information on Alba’s situation can be found on The Beaver website or in the Tuesday 04 October 2016 edition. In addition, the event also sought to challenge the general practice of outsourcing that takes place at LSE, with protesters drawing attention to what they felt were discriminatory outcomes.
Protesters began to gather outside the Saw Swee Hock building at around 12:30; the distribution of feather dusters, mops and placards were sufficient in drawing interest away from the Hare Krishna queue and even the PwC stall and at 13:00 the assembled crowd listened to the testimonies of cleaners who either had the day off, or were using their short breaks to attend the demo. Whilst the cleaners are angry at what they feel amounts to unfair treatment, those who spoke also struck a conciliatory tone. Speaking to the crowd, one LSE cleaner Mildred said “All of us are like one family here, want it to stay that way”, before adding “stop exploiting us!”. Earney, a cleaner who was unfairly dismissed in the 2015/16 academic year but was later reinstated following outcry from the LSE community, echoed these words, stating “We are undermined…We are like one family but they want to separate and divide us.”
The mixture of students, staff and trade unionists were joined by a solidarity march by SOAS Justice for Cleaners – a group who have been fighting for better treatment for its University’s cleaners for a number of years – and those assembled marched to the Kingsway office entrance of Allan Blair, the LSE’s Director of Facilities Management. Using a microphone, UVW General Secretary Petros Elia called on Allan Blair directly, claiming he was directly responsible for what he considered the ‘unacceptable terms and conditions’ of staff members on Noonan contracts. Using a microphone, Elia demanded Blair come down from his office to address the cleaners, asking ‘why don’t you come face to face with the people you so clearly hold in contempt?’
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Blair did not show but the mood of the crowd was not dimmed. Speakers represented a wide, diverse network and used both humour and anger to deliver their messages to protesters. Messages of solidarity were delivered by, among others, Unison and a Union representing cleaners in New Zealand. To the delight of the crowd, a particularly impassioned protester called Vikesh declared “Cleaners of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your brooms!”
Amidst the levity, trade unionists did deliver some serious warnings. A Unison representative noted that, whilst he hoped industrial action would not be necessary, the LSE should be aware that when SOAS cleaners went on strike, they “shut down the Uni in two days”, such is the “fundamental” nature of the work that they do”. Additionally, a number of UVW representatives reiterated the successes they enjoyed against high street giants John Lewis and Top Shop.
A recurring theme of the protest was equality for cleaning staff at the LSE, which many feel is severely impacted upon by the University’s practice of outsourcing some of its operations. A third year economics student told The Beaver “It’s basically immoral. When the Uni starts outsourcing, firms competing for the bid create a ‘race to the bottom’ atmosphere. It’s inevitable that the costs are passed on to the most vulnerable people – the workers at the bottom.” This position was shared by a speaker who claimed that “institutional racism is fundamental to employment in this city”, articulating a viewpoint held by many attendees that the practice of outsourcing has a disproportionate impact on migrant and BME workers who make up the majority of cleaners at LSE and in wider society.
Though ostensibly a protest for reinstating a recently dismissed cleaner – recurring chants throughout the day included ‘We are all Alba’ and ‘Reinstate Alba Now’ – the protest was truly a response to unions and workers feel are structural problems at the University. Those attending claimed that other staff members employed directly by the LSE are entitled to, among other benefits, sick pay for up to six months and pension entitlements worth up to sixteen times that of cleaners employed by Noonan. Those on Noonan contracts are entitled only to statutory sick pay.
However, the grievances of the cleaners are not solely financial. Those brave enough to speak out plainly see the use of outsourcing as a way to divide staff, and one member of staff on a Noonan contract – speaking to The Beaver on the condition of anonymity, said they did not want to attend the march or speak up as they feared there may be consequences if they did so. The notion of a culturally hierarchal system of staff at the LSE was evoked most aggressively when UVW General Secretary
Petros Elia claimed that the Old Building’s 4th floor cafe was ‘out of bounds’ for cleaners, claiming that management had told them they were not permitted to take their breaks there. Considering the seriousness of such a claim, the school’s response has been quite straightforward, with Facilities Management Director Allan Blair merely stating, “Cleaning staff are free to use the fourth floor cafe, just as they are free to use other public restaurants and cafes on campus.”
The meeting on Friday came less than 24 hours after the Students Union held an Urgent General Meeting on Thursday evening, after student campaigners were able to secure 250 signatures at extremely short notice in order to hold a debate. The text of the motion read “Should the LSESU condemn the school and Noonan’s decision to dismiss a member of cleaning staff and campaign for her re-instatement?” and passed with 90% in favour and 8% against, obligating the Union to campaign for Alba’s reinstatement and for a ‘better culture of respect for all cleaning staff’. At Friday’s demo, when voting was still open, a SOAS attendee urged students to fight whilst warning that the road to success was a long one. “Take things out of the classroom, make the connections between what you learn about exploitation and inequality and the exploitation and inequality that goes on at your University”, before adding “But take it into the classroom too. Raise awareness, talk to your classmates, teachers and lecturers”.
The LSE’s comment to The Beaver states that “A top priority for the School is to get formalised meetings in place with Noonan and Unison – as the officially recognised union – to address the cleaners’ concerns”. However, there will be raised eyebrows at the suggestion that the School has truly softened its position since the dismissal and reinstatement of the ‘LSE 3’ in February of this year. At that time, 3 cleaners with a combined 10 years of service were instantly dismissed by Noonan for finishing an hour early, despite the fact they had no outstanding work and had followed correct protocol. Initially, the School implied it had no control as the decision to dismiss was taken by Noonan. This was rubbished by campaigners and students who argued that, due to the value of LSE’s contract with Noonan, the school wielded significant influence. The three cleaners were subsequently reinstated by Noonan, a tacit acknowledgement that the dismissals had been unfair.
Solidarity and organised opposition in February were instrumental in Noonan’s reversal and the importance of a broad coalition was well acknowledged at the march. Protesters repeatedly chanted “students and workers; unite and fight!” and LSESU Anti-Racism Officer Sarah Foss told The Beaver that they were “excited that there’s mobilisation of students and passion”, but added that they were “disgusted at how the LSE treats its cleaners”
A strong turnout of both students and trade unionists, coupled with the passing of the motion which mandates LSESU to campaign on behalf of students, it is highly unlikely that this will be the end of the issue, and strike action remains a distinct possibility. It is thought that the next step for cleaners and the unions will be to mobilise support amongst other academic and non-academic LSE staff.