Cleaners at University of the Arts London (UAL) have been taking part in a week-long strike for fairer working conditions.
A week of strike action began on Saturday 25 September with a solidarity protest at the London College of Communication in Elephant and Castle, and daily pickets at colleges across south west London.
Today, the strikers returned to Elephant and Castle, the sound of their chants for ‘equal rights for essential workers’ ricocheting around the busy intersection.
Luzmila Ramirez, 53, a cleaner who has been working for UAL for 19 years said: “This is the first time in my entire life that I have done anything like this.”
UAL, a collegiate university which includes Chelsea College of Arts, Wimbledon College of Arts, and Camberwell College of Arts, currently pays an outsourced contractor, Bouygues UK, to provide their universities with cleaning staff.
But since 2018, workers have petitioned to be employed directly by the university to guarantee sick pay, paid holiday, consistent hours, increased pension contributions and greater protections in case of unsatisfactory working conditions.
Campaigners have cited the overwhelming majority Black and minority ethnic percentage of workers employed on behalf of UAL, arguing that outsourcing is discriminatory and racist.
Moreover, a report published in April 2021 found nearly a third of cleaners surveyed experienced problems, raising concerns over racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.
Ramirez’s employment predates UAL’s move to outsourcing in 2005, and she and colleagues find the precarity of outsourcing unnerving.
She added: “Every time we get a new contractor, we think – how are the rules going to change?”
UAL’s contract with Bougyes is set to end on 26 October, and the cleaners hope the strike may influence the university’s decision on whether to directly employ them.
In October 2020, University College London brought their cleaning team in-house after ten years of campaigning, joining universities such as LSE, Goldsmiths, Birkbeck, Queen Mary’s and SOAS.
The week’s pressure on the university led to a meeting between union representatives, cleaners and the Vice Chancellor, James Purnell, which addressed some of the workers’ concerns, with UAL sharing details on a new contract from on 10 December.
Ramirez is pleased with the dialogue between UAL and the cleaners, but maintains that the end goal remains the same.
She said: “I think it’s positive that the contract is going to be improved, and that the Vice Chancellor addressed our concerns.
“More than that, it’s so good, seeing that students and staff are with us. We are so pleased and grateful for everybody that shows their support.
“But we are good workers and we’re here because we deserve to be in-house.”
A UAL spokesperson said: “We take steps to ensure working conditions for contract staff are in line with good practice.
“We have paid the London Living Wage (LLW) since 2014 and recently became accredited as a Living Wage Employer. We have also committed to including the new Living Hours standard as part of the employee benefits in the next contract for facilities management (FM) services which comes into effect from 10 December.
“To that end, we will conduct a pilot with the successful contractor, so as to roll it out fully during the contract. This will guarantee the right to a minimum number of hours to outsourced staff, as well as four weeks’ notice before changes to their rota.
“We have also asked our new FM provider to incorporate a minimum of 30 days holiday (plus Bank Holidays) and up to 10 days paid sickness leave into their terms and conditions.
“Working with external partners is often the most effective way to provide high-quality services for our staff and students – better than we could achieve in-house.”