Cleaners and porters who work at Sotheby’s were suspended today, Thursday, for taking part in a protest yesterday for sick pay and against victimisation.
Up to a 100 people had gathered outside the auction house in London’s plush Mayfair, during an art auction selling paintings including an Andy Warhol that went for £20.9 million. Demonstrators blew Vuvuzelas and horns to draw attention to the treatment of mainly migrant workers who make up the staff.
The workers had joined the United Voices of the World (UVW), a volunteer-run trade union that organises among migrant workers, and won a commitment from Sotheby’s to pay the London Living Wage in February. The porters and cleaners are subcontracted. When they won they were working for Contract Cleaning and Maintenance Limited, but the following month the contract shifted to the Servest Group. The same staff were kept on.
Hours before the protest began the workers were offered backdated pay. They went ahead because they wanted to challenge the treatment of union activist Percy Yunganina, and are still calling for sick pay above the statutory minimum of just £88.45 a week.
Percy, who is originally from Peru, told Socialist Worker, “I have worked at Sotheby’s since October 2010. There were never any complaints about my work until I joined the union. Then it seemed like managers criticised everything I did. I was brought up to a formal grievance hearing.”
The protest was noisy but peaceful and good humoured. Sotheby’s sent out security guards to “protect” the space under its awning.
UVW organiser Petros Elia told the crowd, “The security guards keeping us out earn less than the porters. The porters fought and got the London Living Wage, but the security guards didn’t.”
Percy told the protesters, “Last week Sotheby’s told all the porters we would be disciplined or dismissed if they turned up on the protest. But this is just the start of the campaign.”
The four union activists arrived for work as normal this morning but were stopped outside by Servest’s HR manager, who told them, “You are not permitted on the site. It is a request from Sotheby’s. On the grounds of the protest yesterday against our client.”
Porter Barbara Rocha said, “I’m really stressed out. I feel I’m being treated like a criminal. When they said we couldn’t come in I said I had some medicine in my locker. They let me get it, but I was escorted in by a security guard and they made me leave my bag outside the building.
“We are just fighting for our rights. We want dignity and sick pay. This will affect all cleaners and porters. It’s not just about our union—it will affect all cleaners and porters. This is not the end.”
This afternoon workers are discussing their next move.