SOAS management tricked cleaners into exposing themselves to COVID-19

With an already extensive repertoire of exploitation, the cleaners at SOAS have exposed yet another instance of management’s discriminatory and negligent behaviour.

On March 12th, an anonymous post appeared on Reddit and the SOASk Me Out Facebook page (which is mostly terrible attempts at passive flirting).

The message was in response to the university’s official statement, released earlier the same day, confirming that a student had tested positive for the virus and detailing which places and courses may be affected.

The official SOAS statement said: 

The seminar room used for the teaching activity has been closed off and is being sanitised by a provider.”

But the mysterious message from a SOAS staff member said this was wrong: 

A single cleaner from the regular cleaning staff was sent in to clean the room and told to ‘lock the door behind them’. Apparently, they were not told the reason for the cleaning prior to this task. The cleaner has now been given 14 days leave (I don’t know if this is paid or unpaid.

They also called decisions “messed up” and “an absolute disgrace”. 

Although this constitutes a social media leak from an unverified source, the story seems to ring true. UNISON, who assist and represent SOAS campaigns, released a statement on the general (poor) handling of COVID-19 by the university, which also includes confirmation of the rumours circulated on social media:

“Already, two UNISON members working in the cleaning team are undertaking self-isolation after unsuspectingly entering a room at SOAS potentially contaminated with COVID-19 without being issued with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and in one case it appears without being forewarned of the risk once this should reasonably have been known to the School.”

Given a lack of guidance from public health authorities and the university management, on March 15th, Justice for Workers released an emergency document for action and mutual aid in the face of COVID-19 at SOAS. In this, the second worker who was unknowingly exposed to the virus while cleaning the room has spoken out:

“On March 12 between 8:30 and 8:45 in the morning, as I was in the basement, I came across a supervisor, who was on his way to search for me on the 3rd floor to tell me to close room 386 because there were important documents inside. 

I replied that I had found nothing there, and that I was finishing cleaning it.

This supervisor contacted the cleaning manager and reported that there were no documents in the room, and we closed room 386. I went home and later found out that on Friday, March 6, in that room, a student who had contracted COVID-19 attended a class. I am totally outraged and discontent because I was not informed of what had happened. I was deceived and told that the room had to be closed because of some important documents. Had it not been for the information I received from students, UNISON and the email that one of my colleagues sent to Human Resources, they [SOAS management] would not have taken any preventive measures of isolation.

This seems to me a negligent and discriminatory act because if they [SOAS management] could contact all the students who attended the class in room 386, they could have also informed me, as I was also exposed. Yet, they did not even contact me. This is my statement to clarify that what SOAS has stated about me entering room 386 ‘by mistake’ is simply not true. I cleaned room 386 throughout the week, from March 9 to March 12 in total ignorance of what had happened on March 6.”

The failure by SOAS management to inform and protect their cleaning staff and other facilities workers fits neatly within a lengthy history of mistreatment.

In 2017, after 11 years of fighting, the cleaners at SOAS became in-house employees instead of outsourced ISS staff, in a move which was intended to provide increased job security, sick pay, holiday pay, and wages in line with the rest of the SOAS staff. The Justice for Cleaners (and subsequent Justice for Workers) campaign was well organised, high-profile, and gained a lot of momentum. The movement continued after the 2017 victory by fighting for better contracts, improving conditions for staff, reducing gender, race, and class-based wage disparity, and much more. 

The Justice for Workers most recent document reminds us:

“We must see this negligence as classist, gendered and racialised.”

The COVID-19 outbreak continues to expose cruelty, contradictions, and failures in the treatment of work and workers.  Three days ago, cleaners at Lewisham hospital, the first hospital in the capital to treat a coronavirus patient, went on wildcat strike after the private contractor ISS failed to pay their wages.

Darya Rustamova

Photo Credit: Philafrenzy on Wiki Commons used under CC BY-SA 4.0