By Lara Gibbs, BA Chinese (Modern and Classical)
On 30 June, SOAS canteen staff were threatened with involuntary redundancy should they not take a voluntary severance offer. The deadline for accepting was 17 July. Although involuntary redundancy did not transpire, there is much anger over SOAS’s handling of the situation.
According to UNISON Branch Secretary Sandy Nicoll, catering staff who took voluntary severance were offered around six months of pay. He went on to explain that staff could have been furloughed, which would have lasted until March 2021.
Nicoll has described SOAS’s actions as ‘unacceptable’ and questions what this means for the future of SOAS catering services. He fears SOAS will return to outsourcing, which Nicoll believes will lead to a higher risk of exploitation. In speaking with the SOAS Spirit, Nicoll raised the question as to what would happen when students return to campus, explaining that SOAS catering services are much more affordable for students than alternatives in London.
Luis Carlos, who previously worked in SOAS’s Main Building refectory, decided not to take voluntary severance as advised by UNISON. Carlos, along with some other staff, was redeployed to work in a different role. In talking with the SOAS Spirit, Carlos described the mood amongst former catering staff as one of anger and desperation. He feels that those who work in sectors such as cleaning or catering frequently risk change in their working conditions, as opposed to those in senior positions.
Carlos emphasised the complexity of this situation, saying those who left had received money from SOAS but believed ‘it is not enough money if you have children or a family.’ In regards to his former colleagues, he claimed ‘it is very bad for them at the moment, many are worried about the situation and are still looking for jobs.’
SOAS’s Transformation and Change policy has contributed to the cuts. It was formulated in a bid to save money for the school, aiming to lower spending by £17 million for their 2020/21 budget. SOAS claims such action will create foundations for a ‘financially sustainable academic institution’, while ‘simultaneously advancing social justice.’ Nicoll, on the other hand, argues the policy is based on fallacious arguments. He added, this was exacerbated by including projected losses that eventually did not materialise and in themselves were based on erroneous numbers.
The SOAS Spirit reached out to SOAS for a comment in response to this article. The institution said: ‘In the summer, the Board of Trustees reached the very difficult decision to undertake a widespread transformation and change project in response to Covid-19 and the serious financial position the School was in at the time. The catering service was making a loss, and closing it allowed us to reduce the number of jobs lost in other parts of Campus Services and elsewhere in the School.
‘As with every change that took place across the School during this period, we undertook a full School-wide consultation and consulted formally with the trade unions on both the proposed changes and the processes for restructuring. We understand that Transformation & Change has been a very difficult time for many people, although we are pleased to report that every member of Catering staff who was identified as being at risk, was either successfully redeployed to another role within SOAS or decided to take voluntary severance.
‘We have had some early discussions with the Students’ Union to look at new food service options to provide on campus, and will return to these alongside our plans for re-opening campus further, when this is possible.’
On 4 August 2017, it was announced that SOAS catering services would be brought in-house. This came into being on 29 August 2018. It was seen as a victory for catering staff, who had previously been outsourced. Carlos sees the Transformation and Change policy as an excuse for SOAS to go back on the progress made in 2018 and claims ‘all of that means nothing now.’
Photo Caption: Luis Carlos outside SOAS campus where he remains employed after turning down a voluntary severance offer from SOAS (Credit: Lara Gibbs).