For cleaners such as Consuelo Moreno, the working day is almost 16 hours long. It starts in the dead of night with a trip to the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in central London.
“I wake up at 2.50am every day to start work at 4am at Soas,” Consuelo told Socialist Worker.
“I don’t have the right to a break because I only work five hours. Once I finish I go to my second cleaning job at University of Arts London from 10am until 1pm.
“From there I go home to clean my own house and at 5pm I leave to go my third job and finally get home at 8.15pm.”
Consuelo has worked as a cleaner at Soas for the last nine years. The cleaners there are currently employed by outsourcing giant ISS.
The company made nearly £50 million profit in Britain in the last year for which figures are available. Across the world it made £500 million.
Yet it won’t pay the cleaners who work for it enough to live on, forcing them to work extra jobs.
But the oppressive conditions don’t mean there’s nothing workers can do. On the contrary, they are fighting back.
For seven years now Consuelo has been a rep in the Unison union, building union organisation among other migrant workers.
They won union recognition and the hourly London Living Wage at Soas in 2008.
Now they are fighting to demand the same sick pay, pensions and holidays as other workers at Soas. They recently voted by 100 percent to strike and are set to walk out for 48 hours on 4 March.
“I get the hourly London Living Wage here now,” said Consuelo. “But my other two jobs only pay the minimum wage—so we have to work such a long time every day.
“The long days mean we don’t get to spend very long with our families. That’s why we are demanding the same conditions as workers directly employed by Soas.”
Consuelo said having the same holidays as other Soas workers would give her time to make the trip to Colombia to see her extended family.
Lenin Escudero, from Ecuador, is a Unison cleaners’ rep too and has worked at Soas for 11 years. He has actively built the union since 2006.
Lenin told Socialist Worker, “We were invisible when we first started.Nobody cared about the cleaners. Nobody knew about the injustice we were suffering until we started to rise up and complain.”
Both have suffered victimisation by managers over the years as they tried to organise the union. ISS is not the first private contractor they have battled with for better conditions.
And there have been setbacks and victories along the way. Over the last eight years the cleaners have had to face sackings and immigration raids in their struggle for justice.
“We started to do things out of necessity,” said Consuelo. “Not long after I started, the company tried to cut two hours from my shift. It made me look for help, to ask questions and I came across the union.”
Consuelo explained the difficulties they faced. Cleaners feared losing jobs or shifts if they joined the union. Bosses have dropped heavy hints that strikes would “force” them to sack people.
Lenin explained that after demanding changes to his contract to be given to him in writing “they saw me as a problem”. He said, “Here was a cleaner standing up for their rights and making it difficult for them to do what they wanted.
“And it wasn’t just me, there were others who complained and they did the same thing and cut their hours too. After that they withheld our wages for three months.
“They hoped we would just leave. But we started to get organised. There were 20 of us to begin with and we thought let’s do something.”
The way in which work is assigned is a constant source of anger.
Until 2006, Lenin was one of two workers cleaning one floor of Soas’s Vernon Square campus when a new company took over the contract—albeit with the same manager.
“They said from now on there’s only going to be one cleaner and you have to do the same job in the same amount of time. How is that possible? They just said there’s a new system now, you work for us and we can do whatever we want to you.
“I told them to pay me for the other part of the job. At that time I was working eight hours a day but then they cut my hours to five and a half.”
Consuelo has had similar experiences. “If someone needs a day off their work bosses don’t get someone else in,” she said. “It means we have more work to do or when a person comes back they have to catch up with all their duties.”
Lenin explained, “These companies do these types of things. They want to bring in new people that are easier to manipulate. They try to provoke you in different ways so you react and give them an excuse to get rid of you.
“At that time I couldn’t speak English very well but we knew what they were doing wasn’t right. We got in touch with the union who explained our rights and encouraged us to fight.”
Consuelo added, “It hasn’t been easy. When we started to try and recruit to the union it was difficult because people feared to become union members—they saw that when others raised complaints there had been victimisation.”
But the workers kept on organising—with the help of wider solidarity from trade unionists at Soas and beyond as well as the Soas students’ union.
“Ten years ago I would not have imagined that all this would have happened and that I’d be a union rep,” she said. “But we know change is possible now. All the solidarity we receive gives us the strength to continue fighting for justice.
“We’ve been fighting hard and the bosses are feeling it. I think they are pretty scared of the campaign here.”
As well as preparing for their strike, the workers plan to join the London demonstration against racism and scapegoating on Saturday 22 March (see page 16).
Lenin explained that the economic crisis and austerity is creating a worse situation for everybody—and politicians are trying to deflect the blame onto migrant workers.
“We are not the problem, they are the problem,” he said. “We pay our contributions—no one is giving us anything for free.”
“The government wants to attack migrants who come here to work and do a decent job, in jobs that other people don’t want to do. They are trying to make an enemy by targeting the migrants.
“The real problem is the way they manage this country. It’s not done in a good way, it’s done in a capitalist way and I think it needs to change.”
Lenin thinks the protest will be a chance to unite in the face of injustice. “There’s injustice everywhere,” he said. “It’s not just the cleaners or the outsourced workers. The students have injustice. Other workers at the university have injustice. The teachers have injustice.
“And coming together in solidarity lets every struggle know that they are not alone.”
ISS is one of the world’s largest employers with 525,000 staff in 50 countries, including 43,500 in Britain. It specialises as a privatisation vulture, ready to take on contracts in anything from cleaning and catering services to transport, healthcare, security and property. It drives down costs to boost its profits. And over the last decade it paid an average of just £41,400 a year in corporation tax in Britain.
The Soas workers
Workers’ and students’ unions at Soas support the Justice for Cleaners campaign to get management to bring them back in-house and afford them the same rights at work as others.
In December 2012 the campaign organised a referendum on the issue over three days.
Some 1,294 staff and students answered the question “Do we want our cleaners to be brought in-house?” Just 23 people said no.
The campaign is organising support for the cleaners’ upcoming strike on 4 and 5 March.
Fundraisers have been held, and T-shirts, badges and tote bags are being sold to boost the strike fund. More than £3,000 has been collected so far.