Every year, 12th June is commemorated by Justice for Workers (J4W) – a campaign started in 2006 by majority Latin American cleaning staff at School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) to fight for the fair working conditions of all workers at the university. The cleaning team were called into SOAS under the pretence of a 6AM emergency meeting, an immigration raid was then carried out with full knowledge and complicity of the university’s management, resulting in the deportation of nine staff members. This weekend marks the twelfth anniversary and J4W are holding a rally, film screening and virtual panel event.
Back in 2009, on the day which is now annually remembered by J4W and its followers, over 40 UK border agents in full riot gear sprung from concealed locations and forcefully detained the group which included a woman who was 6 months pregnant. Neither legal representation nor union support were present due to the secrecy surrounding the action and one of the nine was suspected to have had a heart attack whilst in custody and was denied access to medical assistance and water. The events came shortly after J4W’s victory in securing the London Living Wage and trade union representation and it is argued that this action was taken to silence those challenging exploitative employment arrangements. Although students and allies fought to stop deportations – a 48 hour occupation of the director’s office resulted in an exceptional leave to remain request to the home secretary from the university – all nine were sent back to their countries of birth.
Despite this painful setback, the fight has continued over the years with the campaign achieving important victories including the 2018 decision for all outsourced staff to be hired in house – a central aim for J4W. They now focus on ensuring university management keeps promises made to workers, as well as expanding the campaign against privatisation and outsourcing beyond the school. Currently, the focus is on establishing a SOAS cleaning staff rota that ensures safe and dignified working conditions, a demand which university management has repeatedly ignored. This follows the cutting of a third of the cleaning team last Summer meaning that the already limited team was further overstretched and overworked despite having to maintain a higher standard of cleanliness due to the pandemic. J4W has held a number of rallies around this issue and further recent action has included events challenging decisions to make catering staff redundant and potentially close the university’s refectory as well as demonstrations, community breakfasts and teach-ins resisting continued unfair working conditions.
J4W are currently preparing for their day of action tomorrow 10th June to mark the events of 2009. A rally at the SOAS steps to unveil their commemorative banner will be preceded by a selection of virtual activity. The latter will screen Limpiadores, a documentary film that depicts the incident and the campaign’s history and will be followed by a panel to explore the connections between precarious work and the UK government’s immigration policy, further emphasizing how those already at the margins are being punished, both historically and particularly under COVID-19.