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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Cleaners fight back

by New Worker correspondent

TRANSPORT union RMT is stepping up its campaign to secure justice for cleaners working on London Underground (LU). The cleaners are employed by private contractors ABM, the New York-based facilities manager that has a turnover of $6.4 billion from its 140,000 employees. The cleaners have been fighting for parity with directly employed LU workers on a number of fronts including pensions, sick pay and travel. RMT argues that ABM cleaners are being discriminated against when compared with their colleagues. In particular it deplores the inaction of the Labour Mayor of London on the issue.

Speaking at the launch of a strike ballot that opened on Monday, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “It is a disgrace that over two thousand staff who clean London Underground’s trains and stations are treated as second-class citizens in their own workplace. We intend to right that wrong. This large group of staff, employed by the contractors ABM, clean up the human waste, vomit and other detritus and are instrumental in keeping London moving. They do some of the dirtiest jobs round the clock right across the tube network, and without their rapid response and continuing efforts services would be seriously compromised. They should not be subject to this outrageous workplace discrimination. It’s about time Sadiq Khan and LU called their contractors to account. We are calling on Londoners to back their tube cleaners’ fight for justice and as the ballot gets underway we remain available for serious and genuine talks.”

When the five year contract was awarded in 2017 Transport for London piously said it would ensure that cleaners would receive the London Living Wage and would end sub-contracting. An ABM advertisement for one of these jobs seen on the same day as the ballot opened offered precisely that. A full-time night-shift 10pm—5:30am was at the London Living Wage of £10.55 per hour but made no mention of being pensionable.

Also in London, an almost identical strike is underway at St Mary’s Hospital, part of the Imperial College NHS Trust in Paddington, where Alexander Fleming discovered the properties of penicillin; this time organised by the non-TUC union United Voices of the World (UVW). Two hundred cleaners, porters and caterers held the first of a series of strikes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The outsourced workers are demanding better pay and working conditions from Sodexo, a French multinational that has many such contracts in Britain.

The workers are paid an hourly rate of £8.21 and even less for those under 25-years-old. This is up to £10,000 less per year than staff of equivalent grade under the NHS Agenda for Change, so the even London Living Wage is a distant dream. Obviously the bosses cannot afford to pay it because profits slumped nine per cent to $745.8 million last year. Sodexo claims it has already agreed to pay the London living wage from April and remained open to “negotiation and arbitration”.

Because workers only have the bare minimum Statutory Sick Pay they have to work on wards when ill, sometimes with flu, because they cannot afford to take time off when sick. They are campaigning for better changing facilities as well as for an end to discrimination that bans outsourced staff using NHS canteens and staff-rooms.

As an additional insult, workers are forced to change in mice-ridden, dimly lit and mixed-gender changing rooms located in the hospital’s basement. One striking cleaner said: “I work 55 hours a week just to cover my rent. St Mary’s is my home, I spend more time here than in my house. Yet I am treated like a dog and made to feel like dirt.”

Petros Elia, an organiser for the UVW street union, says: “Sodexo’s contract with Imperial allowed its former CEO, Michel Landel, to enjoy obscene executive pay totalling nearly a million pounds a year and annual bonuses of up to 200 per cent of his salary. Sodexo and St Mary’s can afford to pay our workers in line with NHS rates and we urge them to do so, otherwise the strikes will continue indefinitely.”

At the same time, UVW are fighting similar battles across London. At Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens and St James’s Park, the Royal Parks in central London, park attendants are going on strike at Halloween. Cleaners at the Channel 4 offices on Gray’s Inn Road will be also on strike.

In 2016, the now 3,000-strong union organised the largest cleaners strike in UK history and became the first trade union to force a UK university, the London School of Economics, to bring the entirety of its outsourced cleaners in-house. It also organised one of the longest strikes in the history of the City of London, lasting 61 consecutive days. UVW also represents workers in the legal sector, charity sector, cultural sector, architectural sector and even sex workers. Let us hope the results in 2019 are the same as in 2016.