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Dirty deeds done dirt cheap - Immigrant cleaners: the “hard-to-organise” are self-organising

Workers in contract cleaning face low wages, a lack of basic employment rights, bullying management and victimisation for union activities. However, especially among Latin Americans, self-organisation has sustained struggles against the un-scrupulous multinational companies who employ them, and against the immigration controls which are used to sack un-wanted workers and victimise union acti-vists. Those struggles highlight the inadequacy of the “organising model” of trades unionism promoted by the likes of Unite!

In DA43 we argued that the Justice4-Cleaners campaign organised by T&G/Unite! had concentrated on “easy targets” and neglected small groups of workers in so-called “hard to organise” workplaces. Cleaners sacked by Amey at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington outside London, and those working for Lancaster at Schroders bank and for Mitie at Willis insurance company in the City of London have organised themselves, and showed up the union and why it finds such workers “hard to organise”.

The Amey Five

The Amey cleaners were the first to “go it alone” with the help of supporters, inspiring other workers to orga-nise without support from Unite! They were transferred to Amey when it took over the cleaning contract at NPL on 1st Decem-ber 2006. They joined T&G/ Unite! after their previous employer, PKM, told them Amey was a bad company. So 28 of the 38 workers joined the union; a full time official told them not to worry, that Amey would recognise the union and honour their TUPE [Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)] terms, but did nothing.

Amey thought it impossible that cleaners were paid £7.03 an hour but the lab is a high risk area due to the experiments carried out there and specialist health and safety training is required. After four months Amey tried to cut staffing levels and, on 27th May 2007, workers were invited to a “health and safety training session” where the doors were locked and 60 police and immigration officials carried out paper checks. Seven workers didn’t have the right papers, were arrested and sacked. Two were deported to Brazil; a third to Colombia; a fourth was detained. (These are the correct figures for this incident; those cited in DA43 are inaccurate.) They weren’t replaced and within a month there were only 22 workers left to do the same amount of work.

As a result of a grievance, Amey promised to hire six more workers but only hired three. More workers resigned because of the increased workload and were not replaced. On 19th June 2008 Amey tried to change shift times to end at 9.55 instead of 9.45, breaking TUPE terms. On 20th June three agency temps were hired but not given the specialised induction on the safety risks in the lab. Usually a security guard opened a special gate to allow cleaners to leave the premises but when one temp finished late they found it locked and jumped over the wall. The individual was sacked, and the other cleaners were forced by the manager to leave by another gate, causing them to miss their train back to London.

The workers took out another grie-vance, met the manager and got her to back down over the gate. A promised meeting to discuss a proper solution never happened and Amey unilaterally changed the shift times and exit gate. The workers distribut-ed a leaflet to the laboratory’s staff asking for solidarity against these changes on 28th July. The next day the ten workers who’d taken part were suspended. The five main union organisers were sacked on 5th September; the others were threatened with the sack to prevent them supporting the five. Their ap-peal, heard on 7th November, was rejected in writing on the 18th. The speed of the disciplinary procedure contrasted with the grievance procedure; they got the response to their grievance lodged on 20th June when they were dismissed.

Although the five had joined PROSPECT to link up with NPL employees, they were dissatisfied with the representation they got. In February 2009 they lodged an application to an Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of nationality. Amey offered £1,000 between the five, who had demanded £40,000, then raised the offer to £3,000 in total. The workers then demanded £5,000 each and were told £3,000 was the final offer. PROSPECT told them to accept this and put solicitors off representing them. The workers decided that, rather than accept the offer, they would fight on and represent themselves.

Their campaign was sustained by support from the Latin American Workers Association (LAWA), No Borders and the Campaign Against Immigration Controls. Other supporters have included SF members from the two London locals. Noisy pickets were organised at Amey’s offices in Bristol, London, Oxford and elsewhere, and at events organised or attended by NPL, to embarrass them into taking responsibility for Amey’s actions. Pickets at NPL itself got a sympathetic res-ponse from some workers, although some objected to NPL being associated with Amey’s actions and management instructed them not to get involved. A protest and “teach in” by 80 students and staff were also held on 4th December 2008 at Kingston University, to coincide with an award given to Mel Ewell, Chief Executive of Amey on £970,000 a year, one of its most successful graduates. This is in contrast to the “do nothing” approach of the trades unions and helped to make the workers less “disposable”.

Lancaster Workers

The Amey 5 campaign also inspired other workers, starting with cleaners working for Lancaster at Schroders bank. Late in 2007 they had joined Unite! to take part in the Justice4Cleaners campaign for the London Living Wage but they didn’t get the support they had expected.

Consequently, they organised themselves to pressure the union, the cleaning company and Schroders. Lancaster responded to their grievances by reducing the workforce from thirty to nine and putting the remaining cleaners on a whole night shift instead of working 7-11pm. A meeting of all the workers called a demo outside Schroders on 17th October 2008. Unite! officials tried to get them to call it off but they went ahead and sent a letter to the company warning them that the demonstration would take place unless their demands were met. The Unite! official told them he could have organised it better!

The workers knew about the Amey protests and contacted Julio Mayor of the Amey 5 and the LAWA to ask them how it had been organised. They asked Unite! for flags, t-shirts and a megaphone for the demonstration but the day before, when they collected them from Unite!’s headquarters the organiser tried to scare them about what the police might do and urged them to wear masks! The demo was very successful; all the workers and their families took part. It won a meeting with the company and a delegation of four cleaners from different ethnic backgrounds was elected to meet the management. Lancaster tried to in-timidate the delegates telling them that if the protests continued they would all be sacked and replaced with new workers. They offered to sack fewer cleaners, transferring three in return for a salary increase. The Unite! official, who was also present, told them in the meeting that they should accept this as the best offer they could expect, but the delegates did not respond and went back to a meeting of all the workers to make a decision.

The meeting decided to reject the transfers and shift changes and to send a letter signed by all the workers to Unite!, to Schroders and to Lancaster demanding a written guarantee and giving an ultimatum that there would be another demonstration and that these would continue until their demands had been met. The day before the next demo the HR manager met them and told them they would get the pay rise without redundancies. Workers at the meeting made the management nervous by not responding as to whether or not there would be more demonstrations. The workers seem-ed to have won but management resorted to dirty tricks like stopping the pay of activists. Further demonstrations were planned against this but Alberto Einstein Durango, one of the organisers, was removed from Schroders. Since he had an outstanding grievance Lancaster paid him but sent him to various other buildings where they had cleaning contracts and told him just to walk around.

On 6th May 2009 they called him to a meeting in Canary Wharf where he was arrested on suspicion of working illegally. His home was search-ed and police seized political and trade union literature, including a DVD produced by a Tamil refugee group which the police called “terrorist material”. Supporters got Alberto a solicitor and demonstrated outside the police station. He accepted a caution for working under a false name on legal advice and was released. The police told him that he had no job to go back to. Lancaster did not contact him; they’d obviously ex-pected him to be deported. Alberto was called to a disciplinary hearing at Canary Wharf on Tuesday 26th May, at which he was sacked both for the offence for which he was cautioned and for “bringing the company into disrepute” by publicising its actions.

Alberto had worked for Lancaster since 1998, initially on a student visa which expired in 2002, and, on company advice, he continued to work for them under a false name, reverting to his real name when he was able to. He has correspondence from Lancaster under both his real and false names and, in the latter, he is still addressed as “Alberto”. He has “indefinite leave to remain”, which is why he wasn’t deported. This case exposes the collusion be-tween cleaning companies and work-ers who are deemed “illegal”, not because the companies value the workers as collaborators in driving down wages, as nationalists would have it, but because it is the vulnerable status of such workers which allows the companies to do this.

Mitie Workers

Alberto is a strong supporter of the cleaners working for Mitie at Willis. Also members of T&G/Unite!, they won the London Living Wage in April 2008 but were then subject to a similar attack to the Lancaster cleaners involving a change in shifts from 7-11pm to 10pm until 6am and a reduction in the number of workers.

On 11th December 2008 six workers were made redundant, including shop steward Edwin Pazmino, and they have conducted demonstrations outside the Willis building on Friday lunchtimes since their appeal was rejected on 10th February 2009. On 29th February, in response to the demonstrations, the workers were called to a meeting where they were handed a letter threatening them with legal action if they did not stop the pickets. They have continued to date as Willis Cleaners4Justice – a rebuke to Justice4Cleaners.

However, the cleaners fight on without the support of Unite! On 30th April, Deputy General Secretary, Jack Dromey, husband of Harriet Harman, wrote to them withdrawing the union’s support from their campaign. The general drift of the letter is that Unite! and Mitie had made great efforts to accommodate the workers but that they had been unreasonable. The workers are disappointed that their version of events has been rejected by their union in favour of that of Mitie, but they are not surprised. Previously, Unite! officials had boasted of their “good relationship” with Mitie.

A petition against the withdrawal of support, in the form of an open letter to Dromey, was launched on 13th May and handed in at Unite! headquarters on Friday 29th May. A demonstration by supporters accompanying the petition also highlighted the case of Alberto, urging the union to support his claim for unfair dismissal and victimisation for trades union activities. The pressure has to be kept on the social democratic unions but the self-organisation which has sustained the struggles is the key to building unions run by and for their own members.

Why the Unions Fail us

This brings home the crucial failure of the “organising model” favoured by Unite! and other unions. They are social democratic in nature and essentially believe capitalism can and should be managed better to benefit workers.

To do this they have to work with the bosses and get the Labour Party to pro-vide a legislative framework. A top down model of union recognition, negotiation controlled by full time of-ficials and a concentration on “headline” issues like the London Living Wage, not the real concerns of workers, are their objectives. Unite!’s relationship with Mitie was always more important to them than the interests of a small, troublesome group of workers.

Social democrats take the fact that cleaning contractors are rich multinationals to mean they should be more willing to pay better wages as they can “afford” it. In fact, they are rich precisely because they constantly cut costs on existing contracts and win more by undercutting competitors. Besides giving investors a greater return, this attracts further in-vestment and keeps share prices up. Their wealth proves they are ruthless but makes them attractive “partners” for social democrats. Winning the London Living Wage has always led first to cutting jobs, like with the shift changes at Schroders and Willis, then to victimisation of union activists. These workers are “hard to organise” due to the level of commitment required from the union to support them. The “organising model” of reformist trades unionism is based on gaining union recognition followed by organisation around health and safety and other routine issues; it can’t cope with the class warfare which arises from this race to the bottom.

Trouble begins with the transfer to a new contractor, which will have won the contract by offering the same service for less. To make profit they cut costs by sacking the better paid workers and not replacing them, increasing workloads. Contractors rely on convincing workers they have no rights and can’t organise, or that there will be dire consequences if they do. The easiest way to do this is to use immigration controls. Immigration controls don’t keep people out of the UK; they control them when they’re here creating a “good business environment” for contractors. Rich companies thrive in this environment.

Mitie lags behind Capita and SERCO in the “outsourcing” and services stakes, but in 2008 its pre-tax profits were £67.9m on a turnover of £1.4bn. Year on year increases since 2004 had roughly doubled these figures. The NPL building management contract was run by SERCO which also runs immigration detention centres and carries out deportations; it subcontracted the cleaning to Amey, thus making money both from the cheaper workforce provided by im-migration controls and from deporting migrants. SERCO is part owned by Ferrovia, a major shareholder in Tube-lines, which itself subcontracts cleaning on London Underground. These compa-nies have their fingers in all the pies and are very powerful.

The layers of subcontracting require research to find and pressurise the people who matter, who control the money, have the public profile and can be em-barrassed. One reason for subcontracting is to evade responsibility for the workforce, as well as to hamper solidarity and cut costs. Our targets shouldn’t be Amey, but NPL with its standing in the scientific community; not Mitie or Lancaster but the bank that subcontracts to them and who has a reputation. Our aim shouldn’t just be to shame capitalists into acting against their own interests, but to expose their true nature and advocate their abolition. The existing unions can’t and won’t do this; it is not just the methods but the aims and objectives of social democrats which fail the working class.

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