Despite heavy rain, at least 50 cleaners and their supporters turned out at the finale of a series of strikes outside the Ministry of Justice at the beginning of August. This final rally concluded three days of action taken by migrant cleaners, mostly from Latin America and Africa, who are outsourced by the ministry, in addition to Kensington and Chelsea Council and Health Care America.
Striking for the London living wage – £10.20 rather than the National 'Living Wage’ of £7.83 – and other benefits, such as sick pay and parity of conditions with directly employed staff, the cleaners' action represent the first of its kind. It was part of a wider movement of coordinated activity taken by outsourced workers all belonging to the United Voices of the World (UVW) union across a number of disputes.
The fundamental problem of outsourcing, and its negative impact on workers, is clear – during these first set of strikes, both the Ministry of Justice, and Kensington and Chelsea Council refused to properly acknowledge the poor treatments of the cleaners. Instead, they weaselled out of any semblance of responsibility by shifting the blame to the contractors, Amey, OCS and Compass, thereby fuelling a vicious cycle to the bottom. Yet, far from being enfeebled by these huge power imbalances, these migrant cleaners – described by The Observer as Britain's 'low-paid army' – stood up for themselves.
More than any other pickets I have been to, the final rally at the Ministry of Justice provided a vivid microcosm of our class-based society. Security guards – who no doubt are paid similarly to the cleaners – were ordered to keep cleaners from entering the very building they clean every day. There were a stream of civil servants and other professionals who were continuously exiting the building, some embarrassed, others curious, who donated to the solidarity fund and a minority wilfully ignorant of the plight of those who share the same workspace. The managers at the very top, who are ultimately in charge were nowhere to be seen – I would not be surprised if they had exited via a secret masters-only entrance to their limousines.
Kensington and Chelsea Council, who initially promised to bring the cleaners in-house only to renege within 24 hours, left the strikers justifiably wary of politicians. So as a councillor, it was an honour to show solidarity in person outside the Ministry of Justice to these inspirational cleaners, as well as convey the solidarity of over 100 other Labour councillors, including Emma Dent Coad MP, who sits as a councillor at Kensington and Chelsea, who have written a letter of support. It was also heartening to see Richard Burgon MP to give his support to the strikers. The cleaners have already won the moral argument, so they are determined to stand firm until victory.
Stop press: On 17th August, security guards joined the UVW en masse, and are ready to strike with cleaners for better benefits and conditions in the next round of action!
Jumbo Chan is a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Brent and an activist in the NEU