Some of the lowest paid people in Britain are in revolt. The invasion of Goldman Sachs offices on Tuesday (see page one) was just one of a series of loud and angry protests outside the offices of some of the largest financial institutions in the City of London.
The campaign, organised by the T&G union, is targeting ISS Cleaning Services. ISS is the biggest building services company in the world, operating out of 42 countries.
In London the overwhelming majority of ISS workers are migrants, many of them on the minimum wage. The company has contracts in universities, hospitals, tube stations, financial institutions and department stores.
Mila was on a protest last week. She works as a cleaner for the US-based investment bank Merrill Lynch. “I am here fighting for the rights of cleaners and for union recognition,” she said.
“I work really hard, but struggle to survive on the little money I earn. I start work at 9pm and finish at 6am, five days a week.
“Lots of people I work with have children and families to support. They work all night, and still have all the regular parenting stuff to do—getting their children to school, cooking their dinner. I don’t have children—I just don’t know how I would cope.
“There’s no sick pay, so people are forced to continue coming to work when they are ill—even though it makes them sicker. Who can afford to lose the money?
“At the moment I just have one job, but I used to have another daytime cleaning job. Some of those I work with have two or three jobs. You struggle to live on these wages—rents and travel costs are so high.”
The cleaners are asking for very little—£7.05 an hour, sick pay and 20 days holiday a year.
In February of this year cleaners at the Houses of Parliament won better wages, sick pay and 28 days holiday after taking two one-day strikes.
Nestore Barona was a cleaner who was part of that campaign, and now works for the T&G. “Most cleaners get only the minimum wage, 12 days holiday and no sick pay,” he said.
“We’re here to fight against ISS and Goldman Sachs, which has a 45 percent stake in ISS. We’re fighting to get an agreement across the City of London, so that all cleaners are treated the same.”
Most cleaners are employed through agencies—leaving big companies with the excuse that they are not responsible for the cleaners’ well being.
Last year Goldman Sachs awarded co-chief executive Michael Sherwood a bonus of £10 million. Cleaners who work the graveyard shift at the company’s plush offices take home just £6.20 an hour.
The average annual wage at Goldman Sachs is £260,000—it would take a cleaner over 20 years to earn that.
“I want to be able to earn a decent wage for the work I do,” said Rachel, one of the protesting cleaners. “These companies make so much money, yet we have nothing.
“It wouldn’t take very much for them to give us a little respect, to treat us like we were people—not invisible things that do the jobs that are below them. It’s about the money, but it’s also about how we are treated. A little respect wouldn’t cost anything at all.”
Workers last week handed Goldman Sachs a “Golden Vacuum award” (left) for “sucking cleaners dry”.
Many people have come to support the cleaners at the protests. “I’m here because I believe that cleaners deserve justice,” said Anna, a student. “These sorts of protests will help raise the profile of the campaign.”
Andy Snoddy is a T&G organiser. “We will keep fighting until we have got cleaners a decent wage and working conditions,” he told Socialist Worker.
“The protests this week have been great—but we have to keep going and spread the action until we win a living wage and decent working conditions for cleaners.
“Over the coming weeks we’ll be spreading the action out of London, with demonstrations in cities around Britain and Ireland.”
The T&G’s London cleaners campaigns started with the Canary Wharf cleaners in 2004.
There have been some successes—cleaners at the Houses of Parliament and many of the offices at Canary Wharf have won better wages and conditions.
The T&G’s strategy is to embarrass multinationals into agreements over cleaners’ pay and conditions.
The campaigns are effective at highlighting a largely hidden problem.
But, as the Houses of Parliament actions showed, strike action needs to be on the agenda in order to win real change.
The current campaign shows the anger at how some of the poorest workers are treated—but there is only so much you can win with a whistle.