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Academics, Cleaners Criticise Outsourcing at SOAS

Nihan Kalle, BA Politics

On the 27th of January, the Justice for Cleaners campaign hosted an academic panel titled ‘The Cleaners, Outsourcing and Labour Struggles’ in the JCR in light of the critical period the cleaners are facing in the struggle to secure in-house contracts. The panel was attended by SOAS academics Drs Tim Pringle, Jens Lerche and Kerem Nisancioglu, joined by Justice for Cleaners spokesperson and key member Consuelo Moreno. Academics on the panel discussed how the treatment SOAS cleaners face is intertwined with the global labour struggles and the wider fight against outsourcing.

The panellists expressed their dismay in being part of an institution that preaches progressiveness, equality and diversity yet continues to discriminate against and marginalise cleaners. SOAS, the speakers claimed, has failed throughout the cleaners’ campaign to provide a secure working environment.

Having previously written a paper on the politics of resistance against outsourcing in higher education, Nisancioglu articulated the importance of activism on campus. He noted that struggles against outsourcing have been amongst the most vibrant and largest student run campaigns on campuses. ‘SOAS prides itself and markets its reputation for alternativeness, criticalness, challenging the status quo and mainstream ways of thinking, and has the most active students union’, said Nisancioglu, ‘yet its reputation of activism is utilised by SOAS management as a marketing tool to attract prospective students, which is why universities are spaces that are and should be utilised to challenge these management structures.’ Likewise Pringle emphasised the importance of activism, such as this academic panel, as a crucial force which can lead to democratic organisation of labour and the mobilisation of trade unions and students’ unions.

As pointed out by Pringle, the issue of outsourcing is a global one, thus the cleaners’ struggle at SOAS is not unique. Lerche and Pringle spoke on employers’ motivations for outsourcing their workers. Employers avoid in house options, firstly in order to reduce costs, but most importantly because outsourcing avoids abiding to labour and trade union rights, allowing employers to elude their responsibilities.

A specialist in the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Lerche focuses on work hierarchies, social movements and labour conditions, described ‘decent work’ as that which ensures fair income, security in the workplace, protection for families, prospects for social integration and the freedom for people to express to employers their concerns. He voiced his disappointment with SOAS management for not considering this concept of ‘decent work’ while mulling over the contract tendering process for the cleaners.

Lerche pointed out that by choosing to outsource SOAS deliberately exacerbates the inclusivity of the SOAS community. Moreno reflected on this, saying that SOAS management does not want the cleaners and other outsourced workers to become part and parcel of the SOAS community.

Still, Los Limpiadores
Still, Los Limpiadores

SOAS’ cleaners are from South American countries, and over the years have faced serious battles with deportation and other racialised migration policies. Moreno being the only woman of colour that was present at the panel demonstrates the gendered and racialised nature of her work.

Pringle and Lerche both suggested that even if the cleaners are not brought in house, management should ensure that the next outsourcer provides better working conditions for the cleaners. Contrary to this, Moreno highlighted the importance of completely eliminating outsourcing.

Nisancioglu expressed the problematic nature of universities’ view on students as consumers, rather that viewing them as participants in the activity of learning and research. He also pointed to the problematic nature of the university’s legitimisation of struggles through the endorsement of academics, rather than the experiences of cleaners.

We do not want a better employer, we want to be brought in house” – Consuelo Moreno

Nisancioglu further explained the perils workers face in activism, with a fear of intimidation. These dangers are gendered, with women held back due to the performance of labour outside of work (i.e. childcare), and class-based, with workers often feeling unable to communicate in the political sphere because of their lack of formalised education. He suggested that universities must cofront the binary dynamics practiced in separating the ‘educated’ from the ‘uneducated’ and the ‘experts’ from ‘non-experts’.

Having worked several years at SOAS, Moreno made clear the successes the Justice for Cleaners campaign has achieved over a decade, such as the London living wage, pension pays and paid holidays. Moreno spoke on behalf of her colleagues, declaring that they will continue to fight until outsourcing ends.

On the 1st of February, there will be the screening of ‘Los Limpiadores,’ a new documentary depicting the lives and struggles of the SOAS cleaners, in the Lucas Lecture Theatre. Furthermore, on the 17th of February, management will be holding a meeting to discuss and finalise outsourcing options with 3 other companies. The current contract with ISS will end in March, and the cleaners will most likely be contracted to another outsourcing company.

If you would like to get involved in the Justice for Cleaners campaign, get in touch via Facebook, Twitter or email [email protected].

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