The struggles of the cleaners and caterers at this government office in central London should resonate with low-paid people everywhere.
They work exhausting jobs at difficult hours for unsympathetic managers that want to squeeze every last drop out of them. For their efforts they get paid a wage that barely covers the basic necessities.
They don’t even get proper holiday or sick pay.
What makes these workers different is that they’ve decided to do something about it. They’ve walked off the job—and say they won’t go back until they get what they want.
“We’ve been living in poverty—no-one’s listening to us,” one worker, Novelette, told a rally last Thursday. “We’re out indefinitely so that they understand we’re not backing down.”
These are the PCS union members at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis). They’re employed by two private outsourcers, ISS and Aramark, who pay them just £9 an hour.
And since last week they’ve been on strike, fighting for 28 days holiday, better sick pay, and the London Living Wage of £10.55 an hour.
One striker, caterer Maria, told Socialist Worker what life on £9 an hour is like.
“Some months we get less than £1,000 after tax. We have to be very clever to make that enough for the month,” she said. “Bills go up every year. My council tax goes up every year, my travel card goes up every year.
“If I need to spend a little bit more on anything I have to use my credit card. That’s the way we live.”
Everybody on the picket gives a similar reason for being on strike. For kitchen assistant Joseph, the current low wages mean “you have to be in debt all the time.”
“It’s difficult to manage our lives,” he said. “Train fare costs me about £50 a week. I have family, I have kids. I have family back home in Ghana.”
For others, such as Kate, a wage of £10.55 an hour “would mean I can afford the things I need, and a proper holiday for me and my son every year.”
Roman, a cleaner, explained how a recent change from monthly to fortnightly pay ended with workers going an extra two weeks without wages.
This situation led the PCS to set up a “foodbank” out of its office in the Beis building to help those workers who were left out of pocket.
“I know of someone who came to the union, saying, ‘I can’t tell the landlord I can’t pay because the company isn’t paying us’,” said Roman.
For some of the strikers going on an indefinite strike was daunting prospect. But many more said that, after a series of smaller strikes since January, this was the only option left.
Joseph said he’s ready to stay out until he wins.
“I’m ready for anything—more than ready,” he said. “We have to make some sacrifices. But until they say yes to our demands, I’m ready to stay out.”
Workers in fear of getting ill and taking their time off
Sick pay—or the lack of it—comes up time and again on the picket line. Workers fear getting ill because they know staying off sick means going unpaid.
One striker, Merline, told Socialist Worker she was off sick recently and didn’t get paid for a week. Another, Ana, tells of a colleague who broke his foot and hasn’t had any pay.
Strikers say they have to work at least a half day before they get any pay at all. Even a GP’s appointment can lead to pay being docked—leaving workers feeling as if they have to come in to work when sick.
“Do they prefer me to get more sick to be here to serve them rather than leave, get well and come back and do a proper job?” Asked Ana, a barista. “What matters for them is just making money. So we work in the morning and go to the hospital in the afternoon.
“Our health has to be first. If you’re not in good health you can’t do your job. But here they don’t care.”
For many of the strikers, this is something that symbolises the attitude that ISS and Aramark have towards their workers—and they know it stinks.
Roman complained that “These companies seem to be paying the shareholders and playing the big money game on the stock market.
“After the 2007 financial crash there was this idea that we were all in this together. But it feels like these big companies haven’t got the message. Their bank accounts are full—probably in offshore accounts”.
‘Let’s bring everything in-house’
The strikers’ key demand is to be brought back in house—to be employed directly by Beis on the same pay and conditions as other government workers.
For Joseph, this “would mean the whole world for us”. It would mean not only better conditions, but more protection.
It’s a demand that unites workers such as cleaners, caterers and maintenance workers in government departments across Britain.
And it’s a fight that’s spreading.
Outsourced workers at the Foreign and Commonwealth office in central London are fighting their employer—Interserve—over demands that are almost identical to those at Beis.
And cleaners at HMRC tax offices in Merseyside—who also work for ISS—struck for two days last week to demand £10 an hour.
Three of them travelled to London last week to join the Beis strikers on the picket line.
One of them, David, told Socialist Worker, “What they’re asking for—we want as well. And we thought we were the only ones who wanted it.
“It feels like we’re connected.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told strikers, “Whether you’re a cleaner in Liverpool, a caterer in Beis or a maintenance worker in the Foreign Office, we demand everyone is brought back in-house, back into the civil service so you can be treated the same as everyone else.”