My name is Suzete Tinto Avez Gomes and I have worked as a cleaner for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) – Britain’s richest council – for nearly seven years. My colleagues and I are currently on strike to demand an end to poverty wages, a right to sick pay, and the dignity and security every worker deserves.
At the moment, Kensington and Chelsea council employ us via an outsourcing company called Amey – this allows them to wash their hands of responsibility for our welfare and conditions. My own story is a good example of this, and of the exploitation and indifference that we are fighting against.
A few years ago while working at Leighton House, a museum run by RBKC, I was bent on my knees cleaning the stairwell and when I stood up I felt an excruciating pain shoot through my back. I had to go straight home, and once home I sat down and I couldn’t stand up again. An ambulance had to be called, and it turned out that I had slipped a disk. I was signed off work for five weeks.
Prior to that day I had never taken sick leave, but since then I have often been forced to take time off due to relapses in my health, agitated by the quantity and nature of the work that I have to carry out at Kensington town hall. Most recently I was signed off work for four months, but when I returned I was ordered to carry out the same tasks that had caused me so many medical problems, defying a doctor’s order to my employers to make reasonable adjustments.
I raised this to the attention of the supervisor various times and presented all my sick notes, but they were largely ignored. I was desperate, and as I wasn’t being listened to I took annual leave to go to Portugal for a private medical assessment in the hope that the company would look at it and finally take my health problems seriously. I couldn’t afford a full assessment, but the doctors confirmed a problem in my spinal cord and the gave me a strap to wear around my waist and another for my neck that can only be removed when I sleep.
These medical assessments changed nothing in the eyes of Amey or Kensington and Chelsea council. I continued trying to carry out my normal workload, which includes cleaning, mopping and hovering five bathroom blocks, a kitchen, around fourteen meeting rooms, the reception hall and two open-plan offices spaces in a total of just 5½ hours.
But the strain was too much, and it was only at this point that Amey decided to refer me to a company doctor for assessment. As part of the assessment, all my medical complaints and sick notes were called into question by managers. Despite this the company doctor corroborated my health problems and made a series of recommendations to Amey regarding how they should adjust my workload. But again, very little changed. I returned to work with my waist strap and all.
I have a question: if someone works hard for an organisation for six years, is it right for that employer to try and push them out by intentionally giving them impossible tasks? Don’t they have a moral, if not legal, obligation to help, especially when their employee’s medical problems are at least partly the result of their workload?
I am currently undergoing further medical assessments that may lead to an operation. What if that operation goes wrong? What will Amey and RBKC do? I am a single mother with four children to look after. Amey and the council have proven their disregard for their workers’ family circumstances in the past – when my 10-year-old daughter broke her leg, for example, they wouldn’t allow me to take any days off or adjust my timetable in order to look after her and help her travel to and from school.
I don’t know if it is because I am Black, or because I have a low level of English, or because they think I am ignorant. I have lived in many places, but never I have ever seen working conditions as bad as this. It has become much worse in recent years, not just for me but for my colleagues on the cleaning team as well.
The councillors and other staff can’t work in this building unless it is cleaned and maintained, and all we ask for is respect for the contributions we make to RBKC. They should demonstrate this not through words, but actions: by paying the London living wage, and following through with other policies such as guaranteeing us occupational sick pay – at the moment we only get statutory sick pay, which is nothing for the first three days of illness and only £18 per day after that.
Thanks to United Voices of the World, the union we have joined and organised through, we have found a voice that was denied to us for so long. We have incredible reps that see our individual cases through, and a marvellous community that gives us the strength to fight and strike for the London Living Wage. We are taking action in coordination with cleaning colleagues who work for different outsourcing companies at different public institutions – other migrant workers who like us are helping to drive up wages for everyone and proving that employers cannot get away with mistreating and underpaying their staff.
Respect is a beautiful thing, and that is what lies at the heart of our demands.