“We need respect,” says Beatriz—not her real name—a cleaner at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “The way they treat people, the cleaners, it’s not good.”
Beatriz is one of the outsourced Foreign Office workers on strike in Whitehall—the heart of the government—in a long-running battle over wages and conditions.
After several shorter strikes against their employer Interserve, the cleaners, porters and maintenance workers, began a month-long walkout on Monday of this week.
Problems began shortly after the government renewed Interserve’s Foreign Office contract in late 2018. Interserve bosses then launched a steady assault that drove their workers to work harder for less pay.
For cleaners, that meant having their overtime scrapped—something that topped up their wages and gave them enough time to do the job.
“Now they want us to cover large areas in a short time,” Beatriz told Socialist Worker. This is not possible. “Now we’re all very stressed.”
“So many people lost their overtime,” said Anne, another cleaner who did not want to give her name. “We’re short of people because they don’t employ enough, so people did overtime. Now they have taken away the overtime and want people to do the same job but in less hours.
“They really want us to do the overtime work for free.”
The story is the same across the board.
Gary, a maintenance worker, said there’d been big changes since he started working at the Foreign Office 32 years ago, mostly for the worse.
“It’s 100 miles an hour,” he said. “It used to be like a family and everyone worked for each other. Now you just have to get your head down and get stuck in.”
“They’ve cut back and cut back,” he explained. In fact, Interserve bosses have made as many as 32 workers redundant over the past ten years.
“They expect more out the staff. The work has definitely got harder because there’s not as many people but they still want the same output.”
Add to that more recent changes—such as changes to pay dates and scrapping company sick pay entitlements—and it all feeds into growing bitterness against management.
“It’s the managers and then it’s us,” said Tarry, a carpenter and PCS union rep. “It’s like there’s a brick wall between us.”
“I used to love coming to work here,” he added. “Because I’ve been here so long, I feel part of the building. It was a bit of prestige. Now they have taken that all away.
“I had company sick pay for ten years. Then all of a sudden, Interserve found they had lost everyone’s contracts and put us on statutory sick pay. They are good at doing things like that. But if you do overtime they can’t seem to work out how to pay you on time.”
That is just one reality of the outsourcing workers to private companies like Interserve.
The government hopes to save money by paying private companies to drive down wages and conditions. But as well as making workers’ lives worse, the privateers also try to screw as much profit as they can out of public money.
Strikers explained how, despite employing their own maintenance workers, Interserve instead brings in subcontractors for jobs that could be done in-house. It can then charge the government extra in fees.
In this fight against outsourcing, the strikers demand that Interserve recognises their PCS union, and that they get the same conditions as other civil service workers.
But they also want the government—and foreign secretary Dominic Raab—to take responsibility too.
“We want Raab to come down here and talk to us,” said Anne. “Or he should invite us to his office and we can speak face-to-face. I’ll give him a piece of my mind—I’ve got too many things to say to him.
“When he comes in, his office is clean. If I was his daughter or his sister, would he allow us to stay out here in the cold? I’ll get him one day.”
The PCS is asking for solidarity: