SOAS cleaners strike for equal rights


The morning of the first strike outside the entrance of SOAS. Justice for cleaners campaign under a Creative Commons Licence

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 cleaners highlight the hypocrisy of their workplace, a core theme of the Justice for Cleaners campaign that started in 2006. In addition to pay demands, the campaign calls for the workers to be treated with dignity and respect.

As an academic voice, SOAS leads many struggles against global inequality and exploitation. On the second day of the cleaners’ strike, Professor Guy Standing spoke of academics’ solidarity with the strikers. He placed the cleaners’ struggle as part of the precariat: a global class of billions living and working precariously with few rights, low wages and increased job insecurity.  

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). 

Around the world, one border at a time

Earthian peace walk

Earthian at a vigil for Syria in front of London's national gallery. under a Creative Commons Licence

A British-Iranian man named Earthian is soon to set off on his second around-the-world peace odyssey, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers.

On 21 March (Kurdish New Year) the self-described peace pilgrim will set off from his London home without a passport or money, using bike, bus, car, train and foot to travel the globe – first stop Saudi Arabia. This is where he had to abandon his first trip back in 2012.

In a month he had managed to cover some 3000 miles from Britain to Iraq but was unable to continue heading south. He headed back up towards Turkey, through Cyprus and on to Egypt where he was first denied entry into Gaza and then Israel. He then travelled across Jordan towards the Saudi border where he was robbed of his few possessions.

Six months after New Internationalist had told the first part of his story, Earthian found himself stuck in no-man’s land between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He was given an ultimatum by the Saudi authorities: to return to Britain or to stay in the country indefinitely. He decided on the former option, but it hasn’t dented his determination to navigate the world’s borders. This time he will travel west, following the setting sun through Iceland, Greenland and Canada – aiming for Saudi Arabia from the other direction.

Earthian arrived in Britain in 1997 seeking asylum as a Kurdish pacifist, having fled Iran to avoid army conscription during the Iran-Iraq war.

He worked as an IT engineer in England before the 2008 global economic crisis changed everything for him. ‘The crash was so major, it made me realise how pointless it was to be a “good citizen” ’,’ he recalls. Turning his back on the injustice of the capitalist system, he began working out how he could return to the Middle East.

‘We have conflicts all over the planet and feel powerless. We are not,’ he says by way of explanation for his solo peace mission. ‘I advocate for world peace, resource-based economies, no borders, no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WDM) and the abolition of the death penalty.’

Rejecting borders is grounded in Earthian’s Kurdish roots. His family was divided between Iran and Iraq: ‘This barrier was created artificially by the British. It needs to go. All borders create tensions. Everyone should be able to travel freely.’

He remembers when he was challenged at the Slovenian border and said ‘I’m a citizen of planet earth.’ On that occasion, the guards just let him pass – but in other countries, a lack of documentation meant nights in jail.

During the summer of 2013, Earthian toured the British festivals, sharing his experiences. ‘Getting into Glastonbury was the hardest; its security fence is like a country border,’ he mused.

Earthian doesn’t travel with money because, ‘It opens the gate and I do not want that.’ He explains that when he tires, he simply sits down with his book and people come to him – probably drawn by his bright yellow jacket marked with the words ‘peace pilgrim.’ ‘I don’t approach people. This way, I know that people’s interest and help genuinely comes from their heart.’

Recently Earthian hand-delivered peace letters focused on Syria to embassies in London. Unlike other calls for peace, the letter urges countries to accept a fair share of people displaced by the country’s three-year civil war, and advocates a truly inclusive, Syrian-led peace process.

Explaining why he chooses to deliver the letters personally to embassy staff, he says, ‘We have lost a great deal of communication: it is all done through a keyboard. Challenging this is one of the reasons of my journey.’

If he could, Earthian would probably converse and share ideas with every human, not just their representative embassies.

Follow Earthian on his journey.

Why does Trenton Oldfield make the establishment so insecure?

The 2012 boat race

The 2012 Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Lapatia under a Creative Commons Licence

The activist who stopped the Oxford-Cambridge boat race explains his motives to Steve Rushton ahead of his deportation appeal case.

You are ‘undesirable, have unacceptable associations and could be considered a threat to national security’, the Home Office informed protester Trenton Oldfield in its message ordering him to leave Britain. His deportation appeal is to be heard on 12 December.

Thanks to government intervention, Trenton Oldfield was sentenced to six months in jail for his 25-minute interruption to the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in April 2012. The protest targeted the government’s austerity cuts and human rights attacks, more broadly criticizing the élitism and inequalities that originate from British colonialism.

‘Oxford and Cambridge are the pinnacle and a symbol of the élite,’ Trenton says. ‘I put a little pin in this, which is why I was treated so severely.’

Trenton and his wife Deepa Naik are involved in social justice campaigns to supporting indigenous peoples’ rights. The couple point to this, along with the guerrilla element of his individual protest, in understanding the prison sentence and potential deportation.

After the swim, swathes of the press described his ideas as ‘idiotic’ or ‘nonsensical’; one even suggested it had as much sense ‘as a chicken’s entrails’. In parallel, media comments frequently asserted that Trenton was hypocritical due to his privileged background. Both responses enabled numerous articles to ignore the issues of élitism and colonial legacy.

‘These attacks were a surprise in their scale, but they indicate how many journalists studied at Oxford and Cambridge,’ reflects Trenton.

Responding to claims of hypocrisy, he says: ‘I’ve never understood how just because I’m a product of colonial Australia, this means I cannot dissent from it.’

Deepa points out, ‘Whatever his background, they would have criticized something, like they do to other protesters. So in their logic, who is the appropriate person to protest?’

One aspect that most of the mainstream media neglected was Trenton’s calls for redress for the crimes of imperialism.

‘The whole system we all live off is off the back of genocide, from the blankets with small pox to the tar sands in Northern Turtle Island; blood resources such as in the Congo; corruption, colonialism and slavery.

‘This wealth is what we’ve created our economy and democracy on, and injustices continue,’ Deepa adds. ‘There is a collective amnesia of our foundations.’

It was the aristocracy that benefited most from colonialism. Still today, using this wealth, they predominantly send their children to exclusive private schools, from which they go on to fill Oxford and Cambridge. Graduates from these élite universities dominate the British Parliament. In the present government, two-thirds of the Cabinet studied at one or other of these privileged universities, including the seven most senior Cabinet members. This shows how the colonial legacy perpetuates class structures that undermine our democracy.

The government’s negative stereotyping of various groups has created a far more divided society. For instance, the rhetoric that demonizes disabled people can be linked to increased hate crime, along with severe cuts to vital state support. Also, the government has reintroduced the idea of the ‘undeserving poor’.

The couple suggest these divide-and-rule tactics come from imperialism, especially measures that fuel racism, such as the recent Home Office ‘Go home’ vans and the tightening up of the rules on student visas.

Any élites fearing Trenton may want to start a bloody revolution can rest easy on their estates, for now. Reflecting on his jail time, he considers this futile: he does not want vengeance, but for the injustice to stop.

Trenton proposes two ideas that are as peaceful as the swim. One is a comprehensive intellectual project, to understand and mitigate against people with sociopathic and narcissistic personality disorders. He believes these disorders account for many problems across humanity, especially driving élite greed. Secondly, he suggests a continual process in which society should be viewed through the lens of equality, to recognize and redress white, male and class privilege.

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