Organise! City cleaners fight for a living wage

Michael Pooler reports on the struggle of cleaners in the heart of London's financial district

January 22, 2012
6 min read

The shimmering steel and glass of Canary Wharf bear testament to the financial centre’s opulence. But while billions of pounds pour through its banks each day, it is also the workplace of some of the country’s lowest paid workers – who are now demanding a ‘living wage’.

A group of men stand huddled outside Canary Wharf underground station as commuters rush by, speaking in a slow South American Spanish. They ask not to be named for fear of reprisal by their employer.

As cleaners at Exchange Tower – a fifteen storey building home to Barclays, HSBC and even government regulator the Financial Services Authority – they are paid just 18 pence above the legal national minimum wage of £6.08 an hour. All of the fifteen-strong work crew, originally from South America or Africa, travel from various parts of inner London to get to work.

They say the low level of pay means they struggle to make a living.

“Pay is less than £200 a week. How can you pay the bills, council tax, transport? You are forced to live in poverty,” one man explains.

“I have three daughters – it is not enough to live on.”

Another says he is forced to take other part-time jobs in order to make ends meet, and that it is not unusual to work up to 16 hours a day.

With the cost-of-living soaring in London – average rents have shot up by 12 per cent in the space of a year – and a recent study showing the city to have the most expensive public transport system in the world, they are among the section of the workforce most feeling the squeeze.

Now they are calling on their employers, LCC Support Services, to pay them the London Living Wage, a non-binding standard set by the Greater London Authority at £8.30 per hour in recognition of the high living costs of the capital.

Research by the Greater London Assembly shows that somebody earning less than £7.25 an hour in London will be living in poverty, even after taking benefits and tax credits into account. Nevertheless workforce statistics suggest that six out of every hundred full-time employees in the capital earn below this poverty threshold, with the proportion increasing to nearly 30 per cent of those in part-time hours.

Alberto Durango, organiser at the cleaners’ union, Industrial Workers of the World, says the cleaners’ company refuses to engage in meaningful negotiation.

“In November they offered £6.26 [per hour] – they say this is all the building management will agree to – but since then there has been no further dialogue. This is not enough; we want a decent pay, the living wage. We also want guarantees that in the case of a pay increase they will not reduce staffing levels.”

When contacted, LCC declined to comment. Behind this reticence the company appears in a healthy state. In July last year it was reported that the LCC Support Services, which runs operations nationwide for The Arts Council, Land Registry offices and Royal Mail, had seen its business grow at a rate of £1m per month over the previous seven months.

And their current stance on pay seems at odds with sentiments expressed in a 2008 article by Executive Chairman Bob Vincent. He wrote: “cutting corners with staff salaries is the most effective way of committing suicide…[I]n some areas where housing rents are high, increased wages are paid to the cleaners…”.

This refusal to grant what they see as the minimum required to survive in the city has angered the cleaners. One of them says: “There is a lady who has been working there for fifteen years, always on minimum wage. She has shown loyalty but has not been rewarded.”

There is also resentment that other cleaners on the estate are paid more.

“Cleaners who work in other towers earn £7.25 [an hour],” one man adds. “So why not us?”

“What they pay us is impossible to live on,” says another one of the men, visibly frustrated. “This is supposed to be one of the richest areas in the country – there is no logic”.

That was back in December. A month later and a group of supporters are distributing flyers calling on the living wage to be implemented.

The building management have other ideas, and within a few minutes the group are forcibly ejected by security guards who say they are obstructing private property. Technically this is true: all of the Canary Wharf estate is private property, rather than public realm, and therefore owners can lawfully ask people to leave. Instead, informs the building manager, they can stand at the nearest public space – an overground station situated some 500 yards away – all but thwarting their aim of speaking with people on their way out of the tower.

Alberto explains the stumbling block is the building management company, MGPA, who ultimately decide the value of the contract.

“We were given positive indications they would meet the demand but we are still waiting to hear any formal communication.”

For a company that boasts of managing a private equity property portfolio worth $11bn, this would appear no more than crumbs from the table. When contacted to speak about the matter MGPA declined to comment.

Despite the impasse, members of the union who come to show their support are buoyed by victories at other sites that have traditionally not been unionised.

“We have had success with cleaners working for [contractor] Sodexo at the City of London Corporation,” says Luke Carver, an IWW member who works as a teaching assistant. “There was bullying and harassment but we had people reinstated after 12 hours. I think the employers are surprised; they don’t expect this section of the working class to be organised”.

The cleaners’ campaign is supported by Labour MP John McDonnell, who has tabled House of Commons EDM 2411 calling on the employers to respect the living wage.  Email your MP to urge them to sign up.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


17