The mainly Colombian and Ecuadorian cleaners start work at 4am. They clean the lecture halls and seminar rooms of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, that has a contract with ISS, a transnational facility company with a global workforce of half a million people.
The SOAS cleaners often have their shifts cut, leaving fewer workers with the same workload. Those who cannot speak English experience worse treatment, say two of the cleaners. I’ll call them Sophia and Tony in order to keep their identities hidden, due to previous retribution against ISS staff for speaking out.
During the Christmas break, the cleaners had to work in temperatures far below British health and safety standards. ‘If I get sick it is better for ISS; they get paid but I don’t,’ says Sophia. During the recent ballot for strike action ISS threatened the cleaners that they could be replaced and might lose the London Living Wage that they had won in 2008.
But from the early hours of this morning, the migrant cleaners are picketing the main SOAS university building on their third day of strike action – the first two days were on 4 and 5 March – coinciding with the UN day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The strike calls for the same rights as other university staff: pensions, holiday and sick pay.
The strikes and the struggle against ISS and SOAS management have wide support across the SOAS community. Over 100 academics and support staff recently wrote an open letter defining the discrimination against its workers as ‘a stain on the university’s reputation’. In a referendum in which half of the SOAS community responded, 98 per cent of people voted for the cleaners to be hired in-house.
The exploitation of workers within a university that advocates for human rights speaks volumes about the depth of structural inequality. This is made particularly obvious when considering the cleaners’ South American backgrounds.
Both Sophia and Tony left Colombia around 15 years ago. Their native country was a violent place: Tony saw a courtroom blown up in Bogotá where bomb attacks averaged three a day. Daylight shootings were also regular. Drug wars were common and the country’s economy was devastated by corruption, largely between international corporations and national élites. The majority of Colombians have been left with minimal prospects, poor wages and few rights.
Sophia tells me how international corporations have become more common in Colombia – Nestlé and Coca-Cola were some of the earliest and some of the worst employers, with poor wages and conditions.
‘Colombia is a country rich in biodiversity, minerals and carbon,’ says Sophia. ‘But international companies make corrupt deals with élites to appropriate resources, leaving nothing for the local people. At worst they mass-murder the indigenous and rural peoples to plunder the land and resources.’
To escape a hand-to-mouth existence and increasing unemployment, Sophia and Tony both moved to Spain. Working conditions were better there, until the financial crash of 2008 when they moved to London.
Although their chance to make a decent living has faltered so far, for them there is hope. I feel their empowerment and strength within the Justice for Cleaners campaign, which has garnered solidarity across the university.
At SOAS and elsewhere, great minds theorize about workers’ rights and human rights. The real lesson however, is shown by SOAS activists – whether academic, cleaner or student. It is that the world needs action and unity to challenge structural inequality.
¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! (The people united, will never be defeated!)
With thanks to SOAS student and Justice for Cleaners activist Jonny Tyndall for translating the interviews with Tony and Sophia (not their real names).