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Labour Market Realities: LSE Cleaners Strike

Government employment figures released today show unemployment has dropped to 4.5%, the lowest since 1975. However these statistics tell us nothing about the poor working conditions faced by so many workers today. This month’s Labour Market Realities focuses on the outsourced London School of Economics (LSE) cleaners, and their fight for better quality employment.

It was Beatrice Webb who first used the term collective bargaining, defining it as a method for trade unions to maintain or improve their members’ lives. The irony is that Beatrice Webb, a giant of the socialist movement, helped found the London School of Economics (LSE), a university that has been in dispute with its cleaners over decent pay and conditions.

The cleaners, like Beverley, weren’t asking for the world, they were simply asking for the London living wage and to be employed as LSE staff rather than through an agency. The difference the latter makes is huge; it brings a decent pension, adequate sick pay, and good annual leave. However, LSE showed a stubborn disregard for the dignity of the cleaning staff.

Above all this strike was about dignity. The outsourced cleaners had to ask permission before going to the toilet. They would come into work sick, as otherwise they wouldn’t get paid. They felt they were treated like criminals, always being watched and not trusted to do their jobs.

The Taylor Review of Modern Employment Practices, released earlier this week, emphasised that all people should have good quality work. But here are a group of workers who feel they are being treated like criminals, and who can’t even use the toilet without permission.

Why did these workers have such bad conditions? Because they were outsourced. Outsourcing is when a company or organisation contracts a service from an outside provider rather than employing staff directly. This means that jobs are often filled by agency staff on worse terms and conditions. Think tank Resolution Foundation estimates that the number of agency workers will grow to 1 million by 2020, a 30% increase from 2011. They also found that an agency worker gets £430 less per year than an identical employee not employed through an agency, and that ethnic minorities are three times more likely to be agency workers than white workers.[3]

Outsourcing has increasing become the norm in our economy. Our March Labour Market Realities post discussed the growing trend of outsourcing public sector workers. The driving force behind outsourcing is cost cutting. If an organisation wishes to save money on say, their cleaning expenses, they outsource that service, and have an outside company do it for less. However these savings always come at a cost, and with LSE this cost was borne by workers through low pay, heavy workloads and indignity at work.

The LSE cleaners had had enough. So, organised by the United Voice of the World union (UVW), they went on strike. It didn’t take long for them to win their first victory, receiving the London living wage (£9.75hr). Their campaign inspired others, and soon they had support from students, academics, and the wider labour movement. A fighting fund was established, and more strikes announced. It was clear that the momentum was behind the cleaners.

The LSE cleaners were successful in their campaign and will become in-house employees of the LSE from spring 2018. This will ensure they get, among other things, 41 days annual leave, 6 months full pay sick pay and 6 months half pay sick pay, plus proper employer pension contributions of up to 13% of their salary. However the fight is not over. LSE, claiming to have reviewed their cleaning service provision, sacked one of the LSE cleaners, Alba Pasmino. The case is going to employment tribunal. If the case is found in Alba’s favour, the UVW union has promised strike action if Alba is not reinstated.[5]

The success of the LSE cleaners shows how exploitation and poor conditions in today’s labour market can be defeated by the collective bargaining Beatrice Webb championed a hundred years ago.  We can’t help but wonder if Beatrice would be disappointed to see how hard that fight still is. Ultimately, workers have challenged their undignified working conditions and won – it’s an inspiring story and a reminder of how much can be achieved when workers come together.