By Hala Haidar, BA Global Development
On Wednesday 20 October, after a year of back-and-forth discussions with SOAS management, the cleaning team celebrated getting their proposed rota approved. In a public statement, the SOAS cleaning team contend that their rota is ‘the most functional and equitable when compared with SOAS’s proposals.’
The cleaning team are human beings, we have lives, families, and we are the essential workers that faced the pandemic, exposing ourselves on public transport to come to work, cleaning the university to ensure the safety of the SOAS community.
After SOAS established their ‘Transformation and Change’ policy in 2020 to deal with SOAS’ financial instability, the cleaning staff were heavily impacted. With one-third of cleaners being made redundant and the remaining cleaners working for 4 days and having the next 4 days off. According to the cleaning team, with this previous rota, they worked 26.26 hours per week rather than their 37.5 contracted hours per week as well as working 4 weekends per month.
In their statement they assert, ‘The cleaning team are human beings, we have lives, families, and we are the essential workers that faced the pandemic, exposing ourselves on public transport to come to work, cleaning the university to ensure the safety of the SOAS community.’
Led by the cleaning staff at SOAS, the Justice 4 Workers (J4W) campaign began in 2006 after many cleaners reported not being compensated for three months of work by the outsourced company SOAS employed.
The original campaign was named ‘Justice for Cleaners’, which then grew to include all workers outsourced by SOAS. According to J4W, ‘Alongside UNISON the initial demands included recognition of the union, fair wage, and to be brought in house.’
The J4W campaign was largely successful, achieving a London living wage for all cleaners along with sick pay, holiday pay, pensions, and most recently an end to outsourcing in 2018.Consuelo Moreno, a member of the cleaning staff at SOAS who has led the campaign since its conception fifteen years ago, contended, ‘That day 8 years ago SOAS took so much from us that they took our fear, our fear to fight.’
The day she is referring to is 12 June 2009 when an immigration raid on campus under the guise of an urgent meeting at six in the morning, resulted in the deportation of nine cleaners.
As reported by J4W, upon the cleaning staff’s arrival on campus, there were 40 immigration officers in riot gear in hidden locations waiting to arrest undocumented workers. They assert that due to the concealment of the event by SOAS, the cleaners were unable to have neither legal representation nor union support from UNISON.
Despite SOAS students opposing these deportations by protesting in front of the director’s office, which pressured the administration into requesting ‘leave to remain’ statuses for the staff, they were still deported.
The J4W campaign remembers the day each year by hosting events such as a rally on campus and a documentary screening of ‘Limpiadores’ by Fernando González Mitjáns.
SOAS responded in a statement, saying ‘The opportunity to look at the delivery of our cleaning services arose as part of the Transformation and Change process last year.
After engaging in positive discussions with members of our campus services teams, we are pleased to have reached an agreement on the new rota system which will be implemented soon.
The new rota system ensures improved team arrangements with supervisors on hand. It will also help to ensure a better balance and distribution of cleaning services on campus.
SOAS brought a range of estates staff, including cleaners, in-house in August 2018. It means all staff in our campus services teams are directly employed by the university, with the full workforce put on equal terms and conditions.
Our support staff at SOAS are an important part of the community and we could not deliver on our teaching and research agenda or offer an excellent student experience without them.’
The campaign has evolved to focus on ensuring that SOAS follows through on the commitments they have made to their staff, in particular the cleaning staff. Most recently, they celebrated the approval of their rota by SOAS management. However, they maintain that the fight is far from over. They conclude their statement by affirming, ‘we have shown over the years, that we are united and continue to break down barriers bringing us closer to the respect and dignity that we deserve.’
Photo caption: Members of the SOAS Cleaning Team, holding a banner that reads “Justice for Cleaners”, “Bring Us in House”, and “Dignity and Respect”, reflecting some of the key tenets of the campaign. (Credit: Justice 4 Workers)