cleaners' campaign

SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) has a contract with ISS, a transnational facility company. The cleaners struggle as part of the precariat, a burgeoning global class living and struggling on low wages and increased job insecurity. The Justice for Cleaners campaign calls for workers to be treated with dignity and respect. The SOAS workers have fought for and won the London living wage, sick and holiday pay and are currently campaigning to be brought in-house.


At educational establishments in London people theorise about worker's rights and human rights. Such treatment of workers within a university that defends human rights is revealing about the extent of structural inequality we are living with. This is compounded by the workers’ South American backgrounds. The cleaners are upbeat, however. They have been energised and empowered through the campaign, which has amassed support across the University.


What I take from this campaign is that society needs action and unity to challenge structural inequality. As one campaigner I met commented, supported people feel empowered to stand up for themselves. He also maintained there was a need to metaphorically 'push back' against the negative treatment many felt they were receiving.


A recent Equality and Human Rights Commission study [1] looked at cleaners working in offices and in the health, retail, transport and leisure sectors earlier and found cleaners faced underpayment, mistreatment and abuse.


The outsourcing of office cleaning to agencies over the last few decades (when most organisations had in-house cleaners) has led to downward pressure on wages and working conditions. "Contracts often place cleaning firms under enormous pressure to deliver a high-quality service at the lowest cost possible. This often has a negative impact on employment practices, affecting pay, the intensity of work, job security, training and working hours" (p. 9), the report finds.


Many cleaners said they felt that both their employers and staff at the client firms did not treat them with appropriate dignity and respect. Many spoke of being "invisible" and "the lowest of the low", and of being spoken to rudely.


The cleaning sector contributes more than £8bn to the British economy, and consists of around half a million workers, the report states. The workforce is comparatively old, with those between 45 and 54 years accounting for 26%, and those over 55 accounting for a further 22%. In London, migrant workers make up as much as 44% of the total workforce. Migrant workers' poor command of English and lack of knowledge about employment rights makes them particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. According to Jane Wills [2], migrant workers are “caught in the cross-fire of contemporary capitalism”: advanced economies devour cheap labour coming from poorer parts of the world but at the same time find it difficult to deal with the consequences of living with strangers.


As a result of the 'contracted out' cleaning culture, institutions such as SOAS and other University of London colleges such as Birkbeck have been reluctant to take responsibility for their cleaners. I have recently been involved in the Birkbeck cleaners’ campaign, pressing for the living wage and holiday/sick pay from their employer’s, Ocean. A demonstration was scheduled for November 2014, however, as a result of the campaign, many of the cleaners’ demands have been met and a party was held instead. However, the campaign continues in order to persuade other colleges and institutions in London to pay their staff a living wage.


Common Cause is a non-profit organisation, created to serve as a citizens lobby. I have found their website useful as it articulates and advocates a sensitive and informed approach to creating a more compassionate society. They aim to align their work with values that are likely to bring about lasting change. This will be a long process but they point to some initial guiding principles:


  • Nurture intrinsic values (values that are inherently rewarding to pursue)

  • Challenge extrinsic values (centred on external approval or rewards)

  • See the big picture and work together


Common Cause believes we need to co-operate and collaborate to be effective and maintains diverse issues are linked by the values that underpin them. Values are an important influence on our actions and the way we see the world. Progress on these issues is influenced by education, the media, and other social institutions. It is therefore important to ask what values we want to endorse, and what the implications will be for the issues we care about. This will open up new opportunities for analysis and work in how we organise and engage with others, and what we call for.


Writer and journalist Suzanne Moore believes we are in an epidemic of “othering”. That it's becoming acceptable to talk about migrants, refugees and asylum seekers not as really human but as kind of infection, an infection that multiplies and then demands school places for its children.


She cites the book Purity and Danger by anthropologist Mary Douglas who comments how we classify dirt as “matter out of place” and construct taboos around it. Immigrants now, many of them displaced people, are referred to en masse as less than dirt. We see...these people as a threat.” [3]


Paul Mason identifies globalisation as causing a particular problem for the lower-paid in an open trading country such as the UK – it impacts in two ways: “if cheap labour can move here and capital can move to where cheaper labour exists, the ability to defend higher-paid jobs goes out of the window.”[4]


I have interviewed three SOAS cleaners about their working lives. As they couldn't speak english well, I had a translator ask my questions, and they replied in their first language, (Spanish or Portuguese). I did this because I wanted the interviewees to express themselves freely; I didn't want to take their voice away.


I'm presently working with a translator, going through the transcription process and this is taking a lot longer than I first anticipated. I feel a responsibility towards communicating people’s experience as closely as possible. I also foresee this as a project continuing into next year, perhaps working more closely with the contacts I have made in the commercial cleaning sector.


Central to any future work would be a translator. I found it a difficult process to interview and try to connect with someone when you don't speak the same language, but strategies could be put in place to overcome this.


At the moment, I haven't decided how I will present these interviews, but I do feel I would like to work on a more participatory basis with the commercial cleaning staff. Though if I do, it will have to be of value to them. The aim is also to avoid being 'worthy'.




[1] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2014) ‘The Invisible Workforce: Employment Practices in the Cleaning Sector’


[2] Wills, J. et al (2009) ‘London’s Migrant Division of Labour’ (European Urban and Regional Studies)


[3] Moore, S., 29 October 2014, The Guardian


[4] Mason, P.,  9th November 2014, The Guardian