Socialist Worker

The ‘invisible people’ who are hungry for fair pay and justice

EMMANUEL SILLAH came to Britain as a refugee from Sierra Leone in West Africa. He works for the contractor ISS in the offices of Morgan Stanley, one of the world's biggest investment banks. Emmanuel is a TGWU union steward.

Issue No. 1911

I work as a cleaner, 9.30pm to 6am, five nights a week, Sunday to Thursday.

It is very hard work. When the bosses leave we enter the offices, which are very luxurious. I polish the brass and the silver. It must be spotless and shining.

The people who work there expect to find the place perfect when they return. They expect the army of invisible people to come in and do it for them.

The basic pay is a disgrace—£4.75 an hour with an attendance bonus which brings the money up to about £5.40. You can lose some or all of the bonus if you miss time or are sick. There is no sick pay scheme, no pension.

However, just because there is suffering does not mean there is resistance. It was not easy to involve workers in the union at first. Some are living in darkness and don’t realise they are being cheated. Others would like to be in the union but are frightened of losing their job.

Some managers tell anyone who complains, “There’s the door. If you don’t like the job, then go.” But we can’t live all our lives in fear.

If these attitudes of subjection exist, we will live in poverty. Fear is the enemy. It’s the devil’s gift.

Our lives as cleaners have elements of slavery, elements of bondage, where the price of having a job is a very limited life.

Our campaign is about pay and conditions, but it is really about something larger. We want to be respected and to be treated as human beings. At the moment we are riff-raff, like a used tissue which is tossed aside.

All the money that is made in these offices is dependent on people like us keeping the operation running. We are thirsty for justice. That is why we began to get involved in the union.

Management know we have this thirst for change, so they dip their finger in the water and sprinkle a few drops on us.

They talked at first about a staff body, but not a proper union, an independent union.

There are over 60 of us on the night shift. Most are now union members. This is a real union where the members make the decisions.

Many of the workforce are from Africa, Eastern Europe and South America.

It takes argument and discussion about how we can be free. Sometimes I take a week or more to win over one person, and give them the confidence to come into the union. Other times a group of people will join all at once.

You must find the key person who speaks the same language as others and who they listen to, win that person over, and then in turn make them a recruiter of others.

Unity makes you powerful. A tree is not a forest. It is only when the trees come together that you can speak of a forest.

We have now won a recognition agreement with ISS. That is an achievement. We need to make that count and win real improvements. I want to be part of unionising workers across Canary Wharf.

Work costs

I WORK for a contractor for Bank of America. There are lots of issues to take up. We get only 12 days holiday a year plus bank holidays.

Other companies give 15 days. Why can’t we have the same?

I came from Ghana to Britain. I have a wife and two children. We can’t live on

the money from this job, especially as London is so expensive.

Transport also costs a lot. Your first hour’s work is just paying your fares!

Stephen Owusu

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Article information

Sat 24 Jul 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1911
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