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LSE cleaners sound alarm on “second class” treatment, two years after in-sourcing

Two years after winning their fight to be hired directly by LSE, cleaners say that little has changed. Their complaints about a culture of degradation suggest a worrying pattern of treatment for the School’s newest staff.

The strikes which captivated LSE and national media in 2016 and 2017 centred around demands for equal terms and conditions for cleaners, including that cleaners be brought ‘in-house’ – that they be hired directly by the school, rather than by the for-profit outside company that contracted their cleaning services to LSE. The cleaners won that fight. In early June 2017, LSE announced that it would hire cleaners directly, following seven weeks of strike action and ten months of labour organizing, and the cleaners officially became LSE employees in early March 2018. Nearly two years later, LSE cleaning staff are speaking up: they say that little has changed and complain of a culture of pressure and degradation which treats cleaners like second-class workers.

In interviews with over a dozen cleaners* and cleaning supervisors, as well as multiple trade union representatives, The Beaver learned of a tense, high-pressure working environment in which many cleaners feel that they are seen and treated differently than other workers at the School. These interactions also suggested a worrying pattern of treatment by managers and a lack of accountability when cleaners believe that they face mistreatment. One cleaner, who was first employed at LSE over a decade ago through its outside cleaning company, said: “I thought Noonan [LSE’s cleaning company] was so terrible. But now I realize that the pressure was coming from LSE.”

Many cleaners complained of the adverse mental health impacts of their work environment at LSE. “We feel like we are going to explode,” said one employee who complained of a tense work environment and has been diagnosed with clinical depression during his time at LSE, “they know you have a problem. And they keep applying pressure.” Another cleaner, facing continued mental health issues after returning from a wrongful suspension, allegedly faced pressure from managers to not take sick leave despite suffering from a diagnosed psychophysiological condition. An LSE spokesperson said that they were not aware of such cases, and indicated that “[t]his would not be acceptable…the health and wellbeing of all LSE staff is of utmost importance,”. Multiple cleaners complained about the mental and physical strain of understaffing: on one shift, the majority of workers said that they had recently taken sick days due to exhaustion and medical issues associated with their work. “When you come to work you have to be happy,” said one cleaner who said that their complaints had fallen on deaf ears, “they don’t like to listen when you cry,” added another. An LSE spokesperson said that they were unaware

Unlike other LSE staff on the same salary band, cleaners are not eligible for the time-and-a-half pay offered for overtime work, including cleaners working overnight shifts who receive only a modest night allowance. Estates Director Allan Blair told the Student’s Union that the cleaners are not entitled to these rates due to “specific contractual arrangements” made during the in-sourcing process. 

Despite this, trade union representatives with knowledge of the transition said that no such agreements had been made. [An LSE spokesperson said that a “measures document for the transfer from Noonan was provided to recognised trade unions through the in-house consultation process.”] A number of cleaners used the overtime disparity as the basis for their complaints that LSE treats cleaners as ‘second-class’ workers: “We may be the lowest level, but we are working,” said one cleaner. In written comment to The Beaver, an LSE Spokesperson said: “The School has had a number of open discussions with the unions on overtime policy in the past few years. Overtime rates for staff on bands 1-5 vary across the organisation depending on operational need…Due to operational need, a very small number of staff have access to contractual over-time.”

A number of other issues cross-cut complaints about pay to outline a system of inequality. When cleaners received new uniforms recently—the first replacement in two years, according to multiple cleaners—they did not include jackets, despite the fact that cleaners are expected to work during winter conditions, and other workers within the Estates Division received such items. Although LSE has reportedly agreed to give cleaners jackets in response to complaints and trade union pressure, many cleaners have still not received them as winter has nearly passed. Other cleaners complained about a series of everyday slights which contribute to these feelings of ‘second-classness’: for example, male and female cleaners do not have separate changing rooms, leading to many feeling that they must change in open hallways. Moreover, cleaners say that they do not have access to their own break room, instead relying on security staff for access.

In other circumstances, cleaners claiming sick time for workplace-related injuries were pressured by managers to come into work before finishing treatment, despite management being informed of treatment specifics, according to electronic communications reviewed by The Beaver.

Cleaners picket in front of Saw Swee Hock building, Spring 2017 (© United Voices of the World)

 

There are limited opportunities for cleaners to raise grievances with management. Cleaner supervisors told The Beaver that the Estates Division has ended periodic meetings between supervisors and management. Whilst supervisor meetings were held weekly under Noonan, one supervisor said that such meetings have become rare, with the last meeting—during Michaelmas Term—adjourned because an insufficient amount of staff attended. General meetings, between cleaners and upper LSE management, were similarly regular, but now are held only two times per year. These take the form of “town halls”, which leave little opportunity for cleaners to voice grievances, particularly those of a sensitive nature. While cleaners can seek recourse with LSE’s Human Resources (HR) department, multiple cleaners expressed their anxiety to The Beaver that HR overwhelmingly took the side of LSE during disputes. An LSE spokesperson told The Beaver that cleaners have the same grievance procedure as other LSE staff, and noted that 14 grievances had been filed by cleaners since coming in house. LSE also said that the Estates Divison operates an ‘open door’ policy for cleaners to raise grievances with management.

LSE is increasingly bringing in outside workers on zero-hour contracts to fill shifts. Some cleaners, particularly those without full-time contracts, complained that they feel that they have been denied shifts and feel “pushed out” by outside workers, for whom LSE does not have to provide any benefits. In response to a request for comment, an LSE spokesperson said “LSE uses two agencies, Resourcing Group and PRS, to provide cover during seasonal or unexpected absences. Agency staff are only used, however, after LSE staff are offered these hours first.” There is an apparent inconsistency between LSE’s insistence that agency staff are only used to cover unexpected absences, and allegations from cleaners that agency staff are being brought onto shifts in lieu of LSE cleaners.

At least six cleaners—including cleaner team leaders—and multiple trade union representatives told The Beaver that such shifts are not routinely offered to LSE staff and have thus reduced the number of cover hours available for LSE cleaners, particularly those who do not hold full-time contracts or are financially reliant on taking additional cover shifts. This represents an apparent violation of what Unison agreed to in negotiations with LSE, according to trade union representatives with knowledge of the arrangements, although LSE rejects this claim. Such issues are reportedly particularly acute in School residence halls, which employ large numbers of temporary workers during the summer months. In a reply, LSE re-iterated their insistence that such shifts are offered first to LSE staff.

A cleaning supervisor said that agency staff were primarily brought in for night shifts, and multiple cleaners speculated that LSE may be engaging outside workers as a cost-cutting measure because they are not entitled to the same wage or benefits as in-house cleaning staff, although specific details of these arrangements were not immediately available and LSE did not provide further information on the contract held between LSE and the agencies. However, a cleaner who previously worked at LSE through Resourcing Group but is now hired directly by LSE, said that the per-hour cost paid for an agency cleaner is higher than the per-hour cost of an LSE cleaner due to overhead cost—although they noted that the wage received by agency cleaners is lower than that received by LSE cleaners.

What emerged in interviews with multiple cleaners with knowledge of the arrangements was not anger against the agency workers, but rather sincere worry that LSE is using precarious non-union contracted workers to slowly reintroduce the dynamics that it previously enjoyed when workers were hired indirectly. In a reply, LSE said that they “can categorically confirm there is no intention to use agency staff to replace full time roles.”

These moves come as LSE has significantly reduced the number of cleaners under its employment, according to multiple cleaners who have been at LSE for more than a decade. Such moves have significantly increased the workload of full-time cleaners but have not necessarily increased the amount of shifts available to cleaners without full-time contracts because of the use of agency cleaners to fill “cover” shifts. One cleaner noted that just three cleaners are responsible for the entire Centre Building during the daytime, and just two work during the high-traffic shift between 9am and 2pm; another complained that cleaners are increasingly covering jobs which used to be distributed between three to six people. At night, just seven cleaners are expected to deep clean the fourteen floors of the Centre Building, while on some nights there are just two cleaners available to clean the entire Library, according to cleaners with experience on those shifts. 

“Students complain every day,” said one Library cleaner, “but what are you expecting when you give a job meant for eight people to four, and sometimes only two?” The Beaver understands that, in the past, up to nineteen cleaners would be assigned to the Library during the daytime. The significant reduction of these numbers has put pressure on cleaners to sacrifice quality for speed, under pressure from managers to complete jobs regardless of numbers.

The Beaver heard frequent complaints that managers are unwilling to alter expectations or make appropriate changes even when cleaners raise the issue of insufficient staffing. “They think that we’re algorithms,” said one cleaner, who jokingly indicated that LSE had calculated the precise amount of space that a cleaner could cover in a shift. “We are on the ground, they are in the office,” said one cleaner, “we are not robots.”

CLEANERS RAISE ISSUE OVER DIFFERENTIAL TREATMENT, ACCOUNTABILITY ISSUES

Developments around campus have raised concerns that cleaners are subject to different treatment than other LSE staff. In autumn 2018, The Beaver understands that LSE installed biometric fingerprint scanners around campus and residence halls and asked that cleaners sign into work shifts using these portals, rather than using access ID or SALTO fobs like other LSE staff. No other LSE staff are asked to submit to biometric sign-in features, leading cleaners to question why they were being singled out. In a written comment to The Beaver, Unison, the official union of LSE cleaners, said “our members have made clear that they do not wish to use” biometric fingerprint scanners, and indicated that the fight against the scanners were among the union’s highest priorities.

Managers at Passfield and Bankside student halls reportedly pressured workers to use the biometric equipment, including suggesting that cleaners might not be paid if they failed to comply, according to trade union representatives with knowledge of the situation. The Beaver understands the LSE has not withdrawn plans to implement these systems and continues to engage in discussions with Unison. 

The issue raises complicated ethical questions about whether LSE—or any organization—should  be allowed to compel staff to hand over biometric information, particularly given that LSE has provided unsatisfactory assurances regarding the data protection and privacy of such information, according to trade union representatives with knowledge of the ongoing discussions. 

Given LSE’s legal requirement to comply with government immigration enforcement, one cleaner questioned why LSE seeks to require such intimate personal information from cleaners: “LSE already has a complete record of our activity [through card-access and sign in sheets]; why do they need our fingerprints? This is LSE, not the Home Office.”

Other incidents have similarly raised concerns about the differential treatment of cleaners. Cleaners were reportedly not consulted when “smiley face” quality monitors were installed in Library bathrooms, and do not have access to feedback data from these devices as many students might expect. Multiple Library cleaning staff complained of their anxiety towards the monitors, given their knowledge that students are unhappy with bathroom cleanliness: one piece of graffiti says “No swamp toilets” and encourages students to submit negative feedback. Cleaners say that they agree with student concerns, but low staff numbers and the Library’s high traffic makes  upkeep difficult. “We can’t do everything. We are trying our best.”

Cleaners on strike, Spring 2017 (© United Voices of the World)

Conversations with affected cleaners and community leaders suggest a pattern of questionable suspensions and dismissals, including the use of suspension before grounds of misconduct have been established through investigation. In a recent incident in the Centre Building, a cleaner was accused of theft and suspended for a week pending investigation. The Beaver understands that the employee—who reportedly suffered significant mental duress as a result of their suspension—was reinstated when it became clear that the video footage allegedly showing the theft did not contain the cleaner in question and was captured a number of hours before their shift started. 

An LSE spokesperson said that they were unaware of any staff members who had been suspended without investigation but stressed that all suspensions are dealt with under LSE’s Disciplinary and Dismissals policy. The policy includes the phrase “[s]uspension is not a disciplinary act, and does not imply that there has been any misconduct,”.

Although cleaners are paid while suspended, affected cleaners described significant mental duress caused by the uncertainty of suspension, which is heightened by infrequent contact from LSE during suspended periods. A number of cleaners said that they did not receive regular updates on the status of their investigations—which can last multiple months—and are often expected to return to work immediately following the conclusions of these investigations, without flexibility for cleaners to recover if they have faced mental duress or other issues. 

In a comment to The Beaver, a representative from United Voices of the World (UVW), an independent trade union which represents many LSE cleaners, said that “a number of cleaners have been suspended for inordinate amounts of time and when dismissed they have been refused the right to appeal.”

Although LSE’s policy is to only enact suspensions in “cases of very serious allegations,” the volume of inconclusive or dropped investigations related to The Beaver by cleaners and trade union representatives suggests a potential pattern of suspension overuse. 

One cleaner said that they had been suspended for four months. In the end, LSE dropped the investigation due to a lack of evidence, according to internal communications reviewed by The Beaver. The cleaner said that they accepted this explanation but asked that LSE put the conclusion of their investigation into writing before they returned to work. A highly placed employee in the Estates Division refused to do this, telling the employee to submit a letter of resignation if they would not relent on his request, according to the cleaner’s account and corroborating electronic communications reviewed by The Beaver. 

A number of cleaners complained to The Beaver that LSE is overly focused on operational efficiency rather than the well-being of its workers. Many cleaners told The Beaver that they live paycheck-to-paycheck; although suspensions are with pay, these concerns are not ameliorated. A number of cleaners described being financially reliant on overtime shifts due to their low base salary: LSE’s policy of suspending workers before wrongdoing is proven may pose significant, long-term financial and mental burden to workers, even in cases where no wrongdoing was committed.

There are concerns among some cleaners that they face retaliation for organizing with UVW. Two years ago, LSE’s cleaning company, Noonan, maintained a retaliatory “blacklist” of striking staff, according to a UVW official with knowledge of the legal case. However, legal documents reviewed by The Beaver indicate that such claims were “dismissed on withdrawal,” and an LSE spokesperson said that their understanding is that “the only list Noonan kept of striking staff was for payroll purposes.”

Nonetheless, multiple cleaners who were part of the strike allege that they continue to face retaliation for their participation. In written comment to The Beaver, an LSE spokesperson stated unequivocally that LSE does not maintain a record of workers who have previously been involved in industrial strike action. 

One cleaner said that although LSE no longer maintains a formal blacklist, it has been difficult for cleaners to overcome their association with the struggle for improved working conditions, and association with the strike is often used against cleaners as an expedient “as soon as [we] do something wrong.” 

Feeling that they have limited recourse to internal structures, some cleaners have begun to organize beyond LSE. The student-activist group Justice For Cleaners (J4C), which was central to supporting the 2017 protests, was recently resurrected—its most recent town hall was standing-room only, and included involvement from cleaners, students, and organizers of the 2017 in-sourcing campaign. Their basic message is simple: two years since insourcing, LSE has failed to meaningfully improve the working conditions of its most essential staff, and they have waited long enough. “We live in the same house,” said one cleaner, “but we don’t have the same rights.”

*The Beaver made the editorial decision to offer anonymity to sources due to fears of professional repercussions. This piece appears in the 11 February print edition under the headline “LSE Cleaners: No Respect, No Dignity. Without Us, This Place Would Collapse” (Cover, continued on p. 11).

We are committed to expanding our coverage of the LSE community beyond the student body. If you work at LSE or otherwise consider yourself part of the community, don’t hesitate to contact us via email at beaver@beaveronline.co.uk or securely via Signal at +447477916115.

Update 14 February 2020 (17:15 GMT): This article has been updated to include replies from LSE. LSE’s Facilities Divison “do not accept that they treat any staff differently”, per an LSE Spokesperson. A previous version of this article misrepresented the conclusion of a legal case between LSE and UVW: the claim in question was withdrawn, not “settled out of court”.