There’s something dirty about the way we clean

Outsourced cleaners are on the front lines of the battle for workers' rights. By Emiliano Mellino

February 12, 2018
6 min read

Every evening at 11pm, Wilson Ayala Romero leaves the 12sqm room he shares with his cousin in Brixton to go clean the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London’s richest borough, Kensington and Chelsea.

Like many other Latin American immigrants in London, Wilson, 55, from Ecuador, works several cleaning jobs. As is common for most cleaners, he isn’t employed directly by the place where he works seven days a week, six hours each day, striving to make sure that every surface looks pristine. Instead, he’s employed by Tenon FM, a facilities management company contracted out by RCM. Just after Christmas, the company gave the workers an ultimatum. Accept a drastic cut in your hours, or be out of a job.

Outsourcing has been in the headlines recently due to the collapse of government contractor Carillion and the growing fears that other companies the public sector depends on could follow suit. But very little has been said of the way these outsourcing contracts impact on workers. Through outsourcing, workers such as cleaners, receptionists or security officers, tend to be employed on far worse terms and conditions than direct employees. This means worse pensions, holiday pay, sick pay and parental leave than their colleagues. In many cases, the cleaners are working class migrant workers, caught at the crux of discrimination, low pay and precarity. “They think that by hiring immigrants they can get away with exploiting us and paying us whatever they want, but thanks to the union we have managed massive victories, like the London Living Wage,” Wilson says.

Employers like Royal College of Music or the University of London a few miles down the road – where the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is campaigning to end outsourcing – treat workers with a casual disregard, revealing the true cruelty and discriminatory nature of this system. They feel they can wipe their hands of these workers as they do not employ them directly – and they are quite explicit in saying that.

When the University of London was asked by journalists last week about a strike and protest called by the IWGB over pay and outsourcing, a spokesperson said that “It would not be appropriate for the University to comment on the employment arrangements of another organisation.”

The IWGB’s legal department has found that these workers are more likely to suffer from bullying, discrimination and from unlawful deduction of wages than their colleagues directly employed by these universities. Despite this, the outsourcing institutions rarely, if ever, intervene in these issues.

But clearly, the outsourcers have more sway than they claim – after all, they control the purse strings. Just over a year ago, the IWGB was forced to take Kingdom, the former cleaning contractor for RCM, the Royal College of Arts and Heythrop College, to tribunal over thousands of pounds in unpaid wages. A few days before the hearing, the company settled, agreeing to pay back what it owed, plus damages. This only happened after the union threatened to add RCM to the claim.

Then, last autumn, RCM brought in cleaning contractor Tenon FM with the explicit order to cut costs, in other words, to cut the cleaners’ hours. After a brief negotiation period, Wilson and his colleagues were given an option: take contracts that would see their hours cut in half with a small compensation payment, or lose their jobs. The majority of the night cleaners stood united and rejected these new contracts that would result in half the hours and twice the stress. They were immediately given notice of dismissal.

“There are three buildings, one three stories tall and the others five stories tall. There are eight of us cleaning them now and they want us to do it in half the time. This is exploitation… this is shameless,” he says.Wilson has gone twice to his doctor  in the last few months for stress and depression, but he and the other cleaners haven’t lost their resolve. Over the last few weeks they have been on strike, on protests and have handed out flyers outside the college. Meanwhile, all demands for RCM’s directors to intervene, in a situation that was directly caused by its decision for a cheaper contract, were ignored. Emails weren’t even answered.

It is hard to imagine that the college would ever treat its white professors in the way that it is treating its migrant, mainly Latin American, cleaner workforce. According to IWGB calculations the savings made by cutting these cleaners’ hours are just over £ 50,000 per year. This is in a college that booked at £6.3m surplus in 2016 and that between 2011 and 2016 increased the pay of its director Colin Lawson by £63,144 to £228,144.

The IWGB is now preparing tribunal claims both against cleaning contractor Tenon FM for unfair dismissal and breach of TUPE (the rules surrounding the transfer of workers from one contract to another), and against the college for discrimination.

But while college continues to bury its head in the sand, Wilson wants to make sure he is heard. “If we win here it could set a massive precedent for other workers such as us,” he says “This is a renowned public institutions that trains people to be musicians, but they should also train them to be decent human beings… and look at the example they are setting.”

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