Laura Wormington, PGDip Economics and Development Studies
Over 300 academics, politicians, and public figures have so far pledged to boycott Senate House and the rest of University of London’s (UoL) central administration premises as part of an ongoing campaign for the university’s outsourced workers to be brought in-house.
Outsourcing refers to the practice in which a company pays an independent contractor to provide a service rather than hiring workers directly, as was the case with SOAS cleaners until they were brought in house in 2018 after a successful campaign. At the UoL, outsourced staff include cleaners, receptionists, security officers, catering staff, porters, audiovisual workers, gardeners, and maintenance workers.
Critics of outsourcing claim it allows management to dodge responsibility for the poor working conditions of outsourced staff on the basis of not being their direct employers. According to the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain trade union (IWGB), workers who are outsourced suffer on average worse terms and conditions in all aspects of employment compared to their directly-employed colleagues. This includes less sick pay, holiday pay, maternity pay, pensions, and more bullying, microaggressions and harassment from management. In 2017, for example, the IWGB reportedly dealt with 54 complaints from outsourced workers at the UoL over issues including unlawful deduction of wages and discrimination.
The boycott, called for by the IWGB union which represents workers at UoL, is the culmination of an ongoing dispute that began in summer of 2017. During this time, UoL management has ignored repeated industrial action by workers, some of whom have been on strike for up to fifteen days. The union says the boycott will end when all workers are brought in-house on contractual parity with directly employed staff.
The UoL’s Justice for Workers campaign, which has staged disruptions of Senate House events in support of the workers, has described the two-tier employment system of in-house and outsourced staff as a form of ‘structural discrimination’. They point out that many of the outsourced workers are female migrants from Latin America, African countries and elsewhere, and that their complaints of sexist and racist abuse by managers have been repeatedly ignored by UoL.
Last year, the UoL announced it would commit to bringing workers in-house in the near future, but later reported that cleaning staff would remain in their current contracts until 2020, and catering until 2021, at which point in-house options would be presented alongside other commercial bids, leading to accusations that management had gone back on their word.
Outsourcing is commonly justified as being more time and cost efficient for employers who, for example, don’t have to spend their own resources on training up staff. But in June last year, the Guardian revealed that the UoL has spent £415,000 on hiring extra security during student protests in support of the campaign. Management has employed unusually heavy-handed tactics to deal with student protests and staff strikes, causing activists, workers, and union staff to question the ideology behind the university’s commitment to outsourcing.
majorityof the outsourced workforce at the University of London are low paid migrants. They deserve our solidarity in their struggle for equal terms and conditions’.”
In recent weeks, the boycott has gained momentum, with notable signatories including filmmaker Ken Loach, Guardian columnist Owen Jones, John McDonnell MP, as well as support from UCU branches around the country, including at SOAS. In December, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg joined the campaign and moved a sold out concert originally due to be held at the UoL to an alternative venue, saying “the majority of the outsourced workforce at the University of London are low paid migrants. They deserve our solidarity in their struggle for equal terms and conditions”.
Information on the boycott can be found at iwgb.org.uk/en/boycottsenatehouse. The SOAS community should note that while it includes attending and organising events at Senate House, it does not include the Paul Webley wing, and does not extend to the borrowing of books from Senate House library.
Image Credits: Creative Commons