If you’ve been at the LSE for the past two years, you’ll likely remember the Justice for Cleaners campaign. Even if you haven’t, you may well have heard of it.
The 10 month campaign, run by LSE students and United Voices of the World Union (UVW), took on the LSE and its contractor Noonan’s appalling treatment of our cleaning staff.
The School, like its sibling institutions across the University of London, was outsourcing its cleaners, a process which allows employers to hire workers indirectly, via a third party contractor. This loophole means that employers aren’t obliged to provide their staff with the rights and protections afforded to its nominal employees.
Unlike LSE in-house workers, the cleaners were paid nothing for the first three days of sickness and then just £17.87 per day. This equated to payment for just 1.8 hours of work per day. They received only 1% pension contribution, whilst in-house staff obtained 13% – 16%, depending on pay scale. Maternity pay was non-existent, and they received just 28 days of paid annual leave (including bank holidays) whilst LSE’s in-house staff received 41.
In Spring 2018, the cleaning staff were brought in-house. This undoubtedly marked an enormous victory, and demonstrated the strength of direct action and student mobilisation in bringing about meaningful change.
However, at a meeting last week with UWV, the student group and some of the cleaners, it was revealed that the fight was far from over. The cleaners’ workload has increased, with annual leave and sickness not covered by a supporting workforce. They receive no overtime money, and unlike other staff, have no space for changing, washing, eating or taking breaks – despite this being a legal requirement as of 1992 regulations. Their hourly pay is also lower than the cleaners at SOAS, who do the same work and are assessed via the same pay scale. More recently, active union members have been targeted by arbitrary and immediate dismissals, which, when challenged, have been frequently found to be baseless or illegal.
Whilst the battle goes on for the LSE cleaners, it is concerning to report that their situation is more optimistic than that of most precarious workers in London. Like the University of London and its cleaners, employers across the city sidestep conventional contracts to avoid providing basic rights and protections to their workers.
Companies like Deliveroo and Uber do not count their drivers as employees, and subsequently fail to provide the most basic working conditions. One Deliveroo rider wrote that he was paid just £1.71 per hour on his last shift, which didn’t account for bike maintenance and phone data – both of which he had to fund personally. In the event of sickness or crashes, repairs must be paid for by the rider, yet they receive no income because they aren’t able to cycle. Uber drivers report that they must work 35 hours per week simply to cover petrol and other costs, and 90 hours per week to make anything above minimum wage.
These problems are exacerbated by the environment in which they operate. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world. LSE recommends that students allocate £1,100 – £1,300 per month for living in London, and that figure is aimed at those primarily living in subsidised halls, often within walking distance of university, and living a ‘student lifestyle’ known for its frugality.
Thousands work multiple jobs, juggling exploitative roles to make ends meet. Minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, maternity pay and reasonable working hours are the most basic requirements, and should be extended to all workers regardless of station.
These rights have been the source of strikes and protests since the nineteenth century, and what concerns me is not only that we still need to fight for them, but that the fight is being fought by so few. Students have traditionally spearheaded movements which work for justice, rights and equality, yet in the case of precarious workers in London, the movement is struggling to galvanise against the continued disinterest of the majority of the student body.
There are frequent demonstrations, petitions, organising meetings and solidarity events with workers. They are splashed across social media, and advertised in flyers across campus. When Uber drivers went on strike last month, the picket wasn’t physical,, it was online. They requested solidarity, and asked users simply to avoid the app for the 24-hour period. This shows you can do quite literally nothing and still support maltreated workers. There is no longer an excuse.
Precarious contracts are plaguing the working class, and disproportionately affecting women from minority ethnic backgrounds. Now is the time to mobilise. Millions of vulnerable workers today are being blatantly exploited by powerful corporations, and too many of us are sitting in silence.