By Ali Mitib (BA Law and Politics)
On 4th August 2017, Paula Sanderson, the Registrar of SOAS, notified the Student Union that SOAS will ‘stop outsourcing its core support services to private contractors from September 2018’.
In contrast to the previous plans of SOAS management to bring only the cleaners in-house by 2019, this announcement will apply to all outsourced workers at SOAS.
The shift from using the outsourcing companies of Elior and Bouygues to direct employment is estimated to impact approximately 120 workers at SOAS.
By September 2018, staff in central facilities teams and all core support staff -including cleaners, security guards and caterers – will be guaranteed the equal workers’ rights extended to all employees of SOAS. These rights include the right to sick pay, pensions and paid holiday leave.
In their letter to the Student’s Union, SOAS management committed themselves to ‘engage with every single colleague affected so that they are fully involved throughout the process, working closely with both companies to enable a smooth transition over the next 12 months’.
This announcement followed the student occupation of the Directorate over the summer as a protest against the proposed closure of the Refectory announced on the 12/6/17 – on the day that, exactly eight years ago, 9 workers were rounded up in the Luca Lecture Theatre handcuffed, and forcefully deported, and SOAS students were remembering and commemorating the event.
This announcement follows a similar announcement that cleaners in LSE will be brought in-house by Spring 2018.
For 11 years, the purple banner of the Justice for Workers (J4W) campaign has been a banner under which the SOAS community – staff and students alike – have resisted and fought in the pursuit of workers’ rights.
The campaign has been spearheaded by the outsourced workers, a majority of whom are migrants of Central and South American descent. Through protests, occupations and negotiations, the campaign has confronted management – who have claimed to hold the values of “promoting equality and celebrating diversity” – on the lack of basic workers’ rights for the outsourced workers, who perform vital services essential to the operation of the university.
History of the campaign
The campaign began in 2006 after Ocean, the outsourcing company operating in SOAS at the time, did not pay the workers for three months. The cleaners began to organise with UNISON representatives on the SOAS campus and three cleaners (Luis Ojeda, Consuelo Moreno and Lenin Escudero) were elected to the role of Union Representatives. After securing their wages, the cleaners unionised to achieve their aims of procuring the right to the London living wage, holiday pay, sick pay, pensions, to not have to suffer from zero hour contracts, and sexual harassment.
From 2007-2009, the campaign turned into a movement that was inspirational to other outsourced workers in London’s universities. Notably, the Birkbeck University gave in to the demands of their workers and brought them in-house.
On the 12th June 2009 the Home Office Raid occurred – an event that is marked annually by the J4W campaign. According to the J4W campaign, 9 cleaners were invited to discuss documents with management in the Djam Lecture Theatre but were instead arrested by Home Office officials and detained to their countries of origin. One of the deported cleaners was sixth months pregnant. She gave birth to Luca, and in commemoration of the event, the DLT is now known as the Luca Lecture Theatre (LLT), by both students and staff.
SOAS management was complicit in this raid. Representatives of the J4W campaign told the Spirit that they believe the Home Office Raid was intended to intimidate the workers and that it achieved the desired effect. Many workers were fearful of campaigning, and as a result, the campaign was effectively inactive.
In 2012, the SU held a referendum in which 98.2% of the SOAS community voted for the cleaners to be brought in-house. However, the results of this referendum did not result in a policy change by SOAS management.
By 2014 the campaign had resurged. Following strike action, the outsourced workers won the rights to 6 months sick pay and 8 days annual leave. The campaign was not satisfied with these developments and were actively campaigning to bring all workers in-house. An eight-week long student occupation of the Brunei Suite supported the campaign in their aim to bring cleaners in-house.
Following the occupation, SOAS Unison and management agreed to conduct an independent review on the costs of outsourced.
Previously, SOAS management has stated that bringing the cleaners in-house would negatively affect university finances. While they have agreed on the ethical value of bringing the cleaners in-house, they feel that the financial aspect of the new arrangement will cause a major financial loss.
The report, which was conducted by APSE and published in 2016, found that bringing the cleaners, the caterers and security staff back in-house would be “cost-neutral”. Despite these findings, SOAS management did not immediately respond by bringing the workers in-house.
The future of the campaign
While some may see this announcement as a victory, many are hesitant to call it so until all outsourced workers are brought in-house and guaranteed the equal workers rights.
“This is not a victory. We have the promise but we think it will be quite hard and difficult to make it reality. The main goal is get that promise into reality,” a representative of the campaign told the Spirit.
In the letter to the SU, SOAS management committed themselves to “engage with every single colleague affected so that they are fully involved throughout the process, working closely with both companies to enable a smooth transition over the next 12 months.”
The campaign hopes that SOAS management honours this commitment so that the outsourced workers can be involved in the process and ensure that important issues are raised and resolved during the transition.
Representatives of the campaign told the Spirit “there is an expectation we will be brought in-house, but we are not sure how it will happen”.
The SOAS J4W campaign also aims to use their experiences to help similar campaigns at other universities, such as the King’s College London Justice 4 Workers campaign.
In a Facebook post on the “SOAS Justice for Workers – End Outsourcing” page, Lenin Escudero (who was one of the first three cleaners to be elected as a Union Representative) said “I am very happy to have won the end of outsourcing at SOAS University, but our struggle for social justice will continue, and it won’t stop until to see all outsourced workers in other workplaces to be treated with Justice, equality, Dignity and respect.”
A representative of the campaign told the Spirit, “We want to help other campaigns around SOAS and strengthen them. So doing whatever we can to help them.”
“We hope the victory will inspire others and we aim to support other movements around London Universities and in other workplaces”