The story of subcontracting and outsourcing in UK universities is by now routine, as UK’s public institutions are steadily cannibalised by the forces of austerity and marketisation. Key services are systematically parcelled off to private contractors such as Serco and G4S. At least two thirds of higher education institutions now outsource services to profit-hungry external contractors who cut costs by laying off staff and increasing work intensity. After the dramatic collapse of outsourcing behemoth Carillion, many people are calling for an end to outsourcing as an economically doomed strategy. And they’d be right to do so. Despite much talk of ‘private sector efficiency’, these schemes are enormously costly and wasteful, as subcontracters accrue bad debt and funnel public cash into the massive pay packets of their bosses. But there’s another less well-discussed factor at play: the fact that subcontracting is a way of undermining workers rights by simply allowing large institutions to wash their
Take, for instance, the case of Daniel – a cleaner who has worked at the London School of Economics for 8 years. The LSE currently outsources its cleaning services to subcontractor Noonan. Campaigners at ‘Justice for LSE Cleaners’ say that he is currently being subjected to horrific homophobic abuse at work. Daniel has been told that gay people should die and go to hell, that they are animals. One woman claimed that he would be “cured” of his sexuality if he slept with her. On one occasion, another cleaner sprayed air freshener on him and his food while he ate lunch. This abuse has been immensely damaging to Daniel’s health and mental wellbeing. He has had to take time off work, relying on the poor sick pay offered to cleaners. Upon returning abuse resumed immediately. On his first day back, one of the abusers made the sign of the cross over him.
After internal grievance procedures have done nothing to resolve this, he has been forced to take the case to employment tribunal. Perhaps it is no surprise that the notorious outsourcing company Noonan does not care, but it may be a surprise that the LSE as a world-renowned university fond of touting its radical history, appears unmoved. It recently hosted an exhibition titled ‘Glad to be Gay,’ commemorating the founding of the Gay Liberation Front. Daniel was tasked with cleaning the exhibition when a colleague commented that the LGBT+ themes were disgusting, before leaving Daniel to clean it on his own.
Campaigners report a catalogue of bad practises from workplace bullying, to anti-unionisation tactics and unsafe working conditions – conditions they characterise as ‘intimidation and disregard’. Noonan allegedly monitored a cleaner active in her union, and implied people they would lose their jobs if they went on strike. Cleaners also lack specialised equipment for using chemicals and unblocking toilets, have no contractual or occupational sick pay – which means cleaners are forced to come to work when ill. Like many low-paid, precarious workers struggling on outsourced contracts, all of the cleaners at LSE are reportedly BME or migrant workers, demographics disproportionally subject to exploitative workplace practises.
Campaigners claim that LSE have have denied that Daniel’s experiences are anything more than workplace banter, invoked lack of other witnesses and called his testimonies exaggerations. When first told of the abuse, Noonan’s representative at the LSE dismissed it as being ‘in their culture’ – referring to some homogenous homophobia apparently inherent to people of BME or migrant backgrounds. An activist termed this response as “revealing both the racism and homophobia at the core of [Noonan’s] operations”.
So what of the LSE, leading light of the UK liberal arts research? It has refused to recognise the union through which the majority of cleaners are represented, or consult with the workers themselves – as they are not technically employees. This is a long-standing tactic. When LSE cleaners took strike action last year in demand of parity of working conditions with in-house staff, Noonan claimed it couldn’t grant this because the LSE did not pay them enough to do so, while the LSE claimed they could not grant this because it was Noonan – not the LSE – who employed the cleaners. LSE similarly denies any responsibility for the way Daniel has been treated. And legally, they’re perversely correct – outsourcing allows employers to evade any legal responsibility for bad working conditions. It’s someone else’s problem. The price of outsourcing to cut costs is paid by workers like Daniel.
When the LSE LGBT+ staff network was contacted about Daniel’s case, they stated they couldn’t help because the LSE does not directly employ him. Creating this two-tier workforce makes it harder to lodge complaints – as outsourced workers are excluded from established internal channels of redress.Thus, they are marginalised from the rest of the community, a trend exacerbated by their excessive workload and unsociable hours. Cleaners report that they tell us they now find themselves cleaning areas of the university on their own which were previously assigned to multiple people, and many start and finish their shift before students and professors are even awake. It’s hard to organise as workers when you’re functionally obliged to work alone.
Nonetheless, this hasn’t deterred cleaners, activists and union organisers. The Union UVW is part of a growing movement of ‘grassroots unionisation’ which has seen a rapid succession of victories at companies using outsourcing, piecework and zero-hours contracts to undermine working conditions. – including Maserati and Ferrari, Harrods, and McDonalds. Demands have even been won in the struggle of precarious workers in the ‘platform’ sectors previously deemed impossible to organise. At this watershed moment, people are questioning the myths about outsourcing and privitisation. A series of high-profile costly economic disasters from big subcontractors have put the lie to the idea that such models are always economically efficient. But in all this talk of economics and efficiency, we must not forget the workers on the front lines of privatisation. Even when contracts do allow employers to cut costs, those costs are routinely borne by workers – in the form of low pay and terrible conditions.