Last Monday 18th Oct, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)’s cleaning team won a rota dispute with university management after threatening to take strike action. Early last week, it was confirmed that their version of the rota will be implemented starting next week and this victory comes as one of many in the historic struggle of the cleaners and non academic staff at the institution.
The previous rota, which university management had in place, meant the limited team were overstretched and overworked despite having to maintain a higher standard of cleanliness due to the pandemic. SOAS’s ‘Transformation and Change’ strategy of 2020 was implemented to address the university’s financial situation, making cuts across the university. This meant that 44% of cleaning staff were cut during the height of Covid-19. Even distribution of labour, minimal risk of transmission or infection and a dignified work / life balance were ensured in the solution presented by the cleaning staff in November. This, however, had been consistently ignored by management until cleaners decided to confirm and plan for strike action.
SOAS Justice for Workers (J4W) is a campaign started by the university’s cleaning staff in 2006 for fair working conditions for all workers at SOAS. The campaign’s victories so far have included winning the London living wage, sick pay, holiday pay, pensions and in 2018, all outsourced staff became full SOAS employees. There have also been some darker moments such as in 2009, when the 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. 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. 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 home countries.
J4W and the cleaning team continue to commemorate the 2009 deportations, celebrate victories and fight for respect in the workplace. In light of the recent victory and the subsequent redundancy of strike action, one way in which the campaign will be continuing to support better working conditions is by showing solidarity with the upcoming University and College Union (UCU) strike. Though J4W campaigns specifically on behalf of the non-academic staff at SOAS, it recognises that the fight for a fair and inclusive workplace environment is hollow unless it is fought for all. As such J4W supports the aims and objectives outlined in the proposed strike agenda, and will stand alongside the teaching staff if they decide to go ahead with the strike. For more information visit the UCU website, or watch this video made by SOAS staff & students.
After the last week’s decisions, the cleaning team have released a statement. The following is an exert, for the full quote, and future updates, follow the campaign on Instagram (@SOASJusticeforWorkers), Facebook (@SOASJ4C) and Twitter (@SOASJustice4Workers).
“After a year of negotiations, in the middle of a dispute and with the solidarity of the J4W campaign, the cleaners managed to get their proposed rota accepted by SOAS management…The cleaning team are human beings, we have lives, families, and we are the essential workers that faced the pandemic, exposing ourselves on public transport to come to work, cleaning the university to ensure the safety of the SOAS community…Although we are now hired directly by the university (after a historic campaign) we continue to be treated by management as 2nd class workers, without planning, without consultation, without communication and most importantly without respect. However, we have shown over the years, that we are united and continue to breakdown barriers bringing us closer to the respect and dignity that we deserve.”
Image by Justice4Workers.