Protest outside Société Générale. Photo: Valeryus Theofanidis, reproduced with permission of the IWGB.
London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in – especially if you are on low wages. So there was a sense of relief when cleaners working night shifts at the British offices of Société Générale, France’s second-largest bank, were granted a ‘living wage’ at the start of September.
Yet just three weeks later they learnt that their working hours would be cut in half – effectively cancelling out the pay rise. For the workforce of seven, this is not simply a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other. At a time of recession, with jobs hard to come by, they fear it will push them into poverty.
Libia Avellano says she cannot accept the altered shift times as they would interfere with her other daytime job: ‘I work 15 hours a day. My husband has heart problems and hasn’t been able to work for two years. I support him and my children as well as sending money back to my parents in Ecuador. I don’t know what I will do.’
Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), the union representing the workers, believes the move to slash hours is linked to the award of the London Living Wage – an hourly pay rate of £8.30 ($13.32), higher than the national minimum wage of £6.19 ($9.93), in recognition of the expense of life in the capital. Recommended by the Mayor of London as making ‘good business sense’, it is not, however, legally binding, so companies are free to choose whether to pay it or not.
Initial Facilities Services (IFS), the cleaning contractor which employs the workers, strenuously denies the union’s claim and insists the new working system is an industry-wide standard aimed at improving efficiency. The bank, meanwhile, emphasizes that it is not the employer and says it has encouraged IFS to provide additional hours for those affected.
But a briefing document from earlier in the year indicates that the pay rise and alteration of working hours – the shift times being changed from 9pm-5am to 7pm-11pm – are integral parts of a new system requested by the bank in order to make ‘cost savings’.
In response, the cleaners have taken their grievance to the street with demonstrations outside Société Générale, highlighting what they say is ‘hypocrisy’ on the part of the bank for promoting activities aimed at reducing unemployment through its Charitable Trust Fund while ‘impoverishing low-paid workers even further’.
Yet the protests have landed them in hot water: IWGB claims that three of the workforce have been suspended as a result. IFS refutes this, saying that some have taken voluntary redundancy, and adding that the new system is proof of the ‘the availability of flexible working hours’ for families with children.
The union is now calling for the workers to be reinstated on full hours. And following the success of similar ‘bread and roses’ campaigns for dignified wages and conditions in the capital, they are hopeful. Otherwise, says IWGB general secretary Chris Ford, it means the cleaners will be ‘even poorer than before’ and it risks ‘making a mockery of the Living Wage’.
For some there is little choice but to return on reduced hours. One worker, who has been with IFS for four years but did not wish to be named out of fear, said they would work the new shift – but ‘under protest’: ‘I will do it but I do not accept it. I have no other choice: I have a family to feed. [IFS] are trying to get rid of us and replace us with people who can be exploited more easily.’