Spook your bosses: A Halloween report from the cleaners’ picket line

One day, five strikes and seven pickets — our man on the ground reports cleaners have been frightening the great and the good with demands for better pay and conditions.

There is a spectre haunting outsourcing in the UK. It’s the organised rebellious workers of the United Voices of the World.

From 7.30am on Thursday the mainly migrant striking workers and their supporters gathered outside the Ministry of Justice at Petty France for the first picket of the day, along with a pretty large police presence. It was a lively picket with speeches from the five different strikes,

Two other unions supporting the strikes included the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) and Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB).

The MoJ dispute started over a year ago, the cleaners, who are employed on behalf of the Ministry of Justice by outsourcing giant OCS and were paid just £7.83 per hour but after last years walkout managed gain parity with security guards at £9.00 per hour still significantly below the widely-recognised Real Living Wage for London of £10.55.

In January the cleaners were joined by security staff in a 48-hour strike demanding not just the London Living Wage but also equal treatment with civil servants in terms of sick pay and holiday entitlements. Many of the security guards work between 60 and 72 hours per week. The UVW say they have one less week of annual leave than civil servants.

The PCS also held an overlapping 24-hour stoppage by support staff at the nearby Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which was successful. After the speeches and more chanting, a group of protesters pushed their way into the foyer of MOJ, which acts as access to the rest of building through security doors thus shutting down any access to Moj and the Crown Prosecution Service. Eventually the police arrived from their cars parked across the road to escort us out of the building.

After more chants and some cake , we moved off to our next target: the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport. I was getting coffees for this one but the UVW Tweeted the action.

Rattling the Sodexo skeleton

After that we got on the road again, pouring off two buses at Aldwyth and marching up to the Sodexo building at 1 Southampton Row — Sodexo is the contractor for cleaners, caterers and porters at St Mary’s hospital. The strike began with two days on October 28th-29th demanding equality in pay and working conditions with directly employed NHS staff. The United Voices of the World has committed to successive weeks of strike action that will stretch well into December if the demands of its members remain unmet.

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which controls St Marys, outsourced cleaning to the French multinational in 2014. Sodexo makes nearly €1 billion in annual profit, much of which is from UK public funds, but the workers are paid an hourly rate of £8.21 and less for under-25s, which is up to £10,000 less per year than staff of equivalent grade under the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) pay scale. They only have Statutory Sick Pay, forcing them to work on wards when ill as they cannot afford to take the time off. The workers are also forced to change in mice-ridden, dimly lit and mixed-gender changing rooms located in the hospital’s basement.

They are campaigning for better changing facilities, as well as for an end to discrimination against outsourced staff that has seen Imperial ban them from eating in NHS canteens and resting in NHS staffrooms.

The building was in total lockdown in preparation for our arrival but we held a noise demo so despite the shutout we could not be ignored, and some of the St Mary’s staff spoke passionately about their experience at the hands of Sodexo and the indifference of Imperial College Trust.

Baxterstorey bosses starved for brains

Fortunately by contrast BaxterStorey, which runs the outsourcing contract at the University of Greenwich café, were totally unprepared and we easily occupied both the downstairs reception and their lobby on the fifth floor. Our noise demo quickly disrupting the running of building and many employees took this as an opportunity to have a long lunch.

When police arrived after some considerable time, we attempted to negotiate a meeting with management as a condition of us leaving, but apparently none were in the office that day and despite being telephoned they unsurprisingly refused to talk to the strikers.

They are demanding occupational sick pay in line with university staff and a reduction in their workloads. Originally the workers were also demanding to be paid the London Living Wage, which they won on October 15th with the university conceding. Strikes have taken place on October 24th and 28th with two more due on November 5th and 11th if their demands are not met.

Zombie box firms on lockdown

Next was the swanky headquarters of ITV and Channel 4 to demand that outsourcing firm City & Essex offer occupational sick pay and more annual leave for cleaners.

The building was sadly much better prepared, with the main entrance locked and a police presence. Undeterred, we unfurled our many colourful banners and proceeded to make our presence felt with a cacophony of drums, chants, whistles, bashed pots and pans and all manner of stuff that could be encouraged to make a sound, plus music was blasting out of a massive portable loud speaker.

Vinci vampires hide from the light

Next there was a bus ride to Hyde Park, but not for a well earned rest. Instead we were headed to the Royal Parks office, which runs spaces including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens and St James’s Park. Cleaners employed by the outsourcing firm Vinci are demanding a pay rise from £8.21 an hour to the London living wage, as well as occupational sick pay and full statutory holiday entitlement.

After some unsuccessful attempts to enter the building to talk to management we nosily let them know our disgust at their treatment of the cleaners and their lack of respect in refusing to talk to the workers — which was one of themes of the day, management hiding away.

Hospital bosses’ bloody blame shifting

As we walked to get the next bus it was apparent that energy was flagging but by the time we are arrived at St Mary’s Hospital our spirits had revived and we held probably our loudest and most lively picket of the day with impromptu singing of such classics as “all we are saying is, give us our money” and much dancing including a conga line.

Despite the management claiming we were disrupting patient recovery and a couple of complaints from visitors, we were joined by a number of patients in support and Evie Key Tweeted: “Every nurse and doctor I work with is in complete support of the @UVWunion strike outside our hospital. You are members of our team and deserve to be treated equally. We will do everything we can to back you. Keep it up.”

We also heard from workers about the attitude of Sodexo, including from Loretta, who is from Lithuania and works at St Mary’s hospital, as well as being a UVW rep and organiser. She spoke out about how last week a senior Sodexo staffer told her “Eastern Europeans need to be sent back because they’re trouble makers” and described the general lack of respect the workers receive.

Corporates bring in crawling scabs

The UVW has received unconfirmed reports that scabs who have been brought in to break the strike from as far as Manchester are receiving £20 an hour, free lunch and lodgings, which just shows how far Sodexo and Imperial College NHS trust will go to defeat this strike, as they all know that if the UVW succeed the ripples of discontent will spread and low pay workers will rise up for dignified treatment and decent pay.

Also balloting now are Security guards at the University of East London (UEL), who despite being direct employees of the university since April 2019, have been kept on their old pay and terms & conditions. This has led to a “stealth” two-tier workplace, where both enjoy the same status but with wildly different contracts.

And Security guards at St. George’s University, outsourced to the multinational contractor Noonan, who are severely overworked and disrespected, with their terms and conditions remaining on the pernicious statutory minimums.

There is a spectre haunting …


The next round of strikes and picketing over the St Mary’s dispute will be on November 11th-13th, 7am-5pm [Facebook event]