Author: Dawn Foster
Today, many people will reach their offices in the Ministry of Justice, private hospital group HCA Healthcare UK and Kensington and Chelsea council and likely find an unfamiliar scene: the bins will have remained unemptied, surfaces uncleaned and workspaces just as they were left yesterday. Across five sites in London, cleaners are strikingfor three days. Currently, the mostly migrant workers are paid less than the London living wage of £10.20 an hour, and receive only statutory sick pay, which excludes the first three days of any illness. Their demands are modest but could make all the difference to their daily lives: a pay rise to the living-wage level, parity of terms with in-house staff, and sick pay immediately upon falling ill.
Union membership has fallen sharply in the last few decades, helped along by the Conservatives’ hostile legislation. Low-paid and precarious workers in particular are most often unrepresented by unions. It’s not difficult to see why: modern forms of work make income unpredictable for many people, and with most people in poverty coming from households where someone works, every penny of earnings counts.
But the union organising the striking cleaners, United Voices of the World, is bucking this trend, with a membership comprised almost entirely of migrant and precarious workers, and some big wins for such a small operation. After 10 months of action, members at the London School of Economics were all offered in-house jobs. Another small union, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, has led successful campaigns against the University of London for outsourced cleaners, and is proceeding apace with legal challenges against Deliveroo and Uber.
These victories and campaigns are small, but important. Attempting to squeeze fairer pay and conditions from a faceless outsourcing company is intentionally difficult: it will shrug and claim it’s simply supplying labour as a unit; and equally the company enlisting the outsourced labour will argue it has no duty to you as an employer. Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers and cleaners are considered the bottom of the food chain in terms of employment rights, yet an old-fashioned strike eventually engenders panic from workplaces suddenly bereft of cleaners, or tech companies forced to watch their profits diminish every minute they’re short of drivers.
The striking workers are risking a lot by standing up for their rights: their employment is insecure anyway, and there is little to stop the companies involved from simply terminating their employment with no compensation whatsoever. They do benefit, however, from support offered by others who use those workplaces – with students and some academics protesting alongside striking cleaners, and many people donating to strike funds.
Traditional unions are still working for many people, but equally, as the face of work changes and rights are further degraded, newer forms of organising are necessary. Unite’s community membership has helped many unemployed people fight unfair benefit decisions and service closures in their local areas. When the bedroom tax came into force in 2012, several people I spoke to had managed to fight back against possible eviction with the help of Unite Community, and had become involved in local campaigning as a result. They wanted to pay forward the support and advice that had saved their homes.