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‘We will not live in fear’ – Canary Wharf cleaners speak out

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Low paid cleaners and the TGWU union are making strides against the multinationals in Canary Wharf. CHARLIE KIMBER and JUDY COX spoke to the activists
Issue 1911

Canary Wharf in east London is the site of the cathedrals of capitalism. It is the most concentrated area of wealth in Britain. Its only rival is the very heart of the City around the Bank of England.

In Canary Wharf’s giant towers of reflective glass are the corporate offices of mega-banks, financial institutions and top law firms.

These are the fattest of fat cats – HSBC, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Citigroup, Credit Suisse and many others.

At 6pm the bars are full of sharply dressed men and women enjoying champagne or cocktails, swapping stories of their latest big deals, planning their holidays and salivating at the prospect of their bonus.

As night falls they disappear to their luxurious homes and are replaced by another workforce.

This one is much blacker, and many more are women.

The cleaners and security staff who trudge off the tubes and buses are tired before they start.

Many have already done one job and are now about to start their second, a nine-hour cleaning shift.

The inspiring Ken Loach film Bread and Roses is about a unionisation drive among cleaners in the US. What’s happening now at Canary Wharf is the British Bread and Roses.

The TGWU union, in alliance with the TELCO community organisation, is making giant strides forward.

They have won a big increase, to £6 an hour, for the cleaners who work for Barclays, £6.10 an hour for the OCS cleaners working for HSBC bank, and a recognition deal for ISS cleaners.

This is a great example at a time when the unions are discussing how to halt their membership decline.

Low paid workers, many of whom were not born in Britain, some hardly speaking English, have faced down a selection of the world’s most ruthless employers to win union rights.

At key moments in their history the trade unions have had to break into new sections of workers and recruit those who are often seen as on the margins with less secure jobs and less status.

The union drive at Canary Wharf is an example of what is needed in 2004 to revitalise working class organisation.

The TGWU union recently held an event at Canary Wharf to promote its campaign. 

Socialist Worker went along and spoke to some of those involved.

It’s time to build unions

Rhys McCarthy and Matt Lewis are TGWU organisers at Canary Wharf.

This is a serious campaign. We’re not going away. We have had success with some firms and are rolling onto others.

We have clear demands – £6.70 an hour, decent holidays, sick pay and pensions.

All these giant firms have charters of corporate social responsibility. That means nothing unless the people who do jobs like cleaning the offices get a fair deal.

The big firms contract out the cleaning and other services. So some said the conditions weren’t their responsibility. But we say that it is up to these firms to put a minimum wage and minimum conditions in the contract.

As organisers we leaflet two or three times a week, either when people come in at night or early in the morning. Then there is a lot of work finding the crucial individuals who will carry forward the campaign.

We have to arrange meetings, negotiate with employers, contest disciplinaries and so on. It’s not enough to recruit – you also have to deliver for workers.

You have to stand up to intimidation. Early in the campaign people were physically assaulted when they were trying to recruit. Now the employers are more circumspect. They know we can embarrass them.

Because these workers are so low paid we are doing membership at a special rate of £1 a week instead of £1.95.

We’ve done brilliantly, but there are still only a couple of hundred members, so it’s not going to make money for the union. However, it’s a crucial symbol of what our union has to be in the modern world.

These cleaners are an unseen, unappreciated workforce. It’s not uncommon to start talking to a group of workers, and then you notice someone has fallen asleep because they have been working 16 hours with a job here and another elsewhere.

Look at Canary Wharf and there’s so much money around. Of course most of the office workers are ordinary people who need unions too. But there are also the real rich here. It’s great to be involved in this campaign, it’s what the unions have always been about at their best.

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