Special Report: UCL Students and Workers Are Defending Victimised Zero-Hours Staff

Words and photos by Jake Céileachair

The demonstration I went to last Friday outside of the Euston Friends’ Meeting House was buzzing. By the time I left, the crowd had swelled to more than 60 people, ranging from sympathetic passersby, curious onlookers, drummers and campaigners from all across London. They were protesting against what they saw as the unfair dismissal of three employees by Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), the charity that operates the Friends’ House. In BYM’s published statement on the matter what stuck out most was the opening paragraph:

“BYM is a Living Wage Employer, and is recognised by the Equality Trust for the strict 1:4 ratio between lowest and highest paid staff.  Our lowest wage band starts at 19% above the London Living Wage.  All staff receive generous benefits, including 8% employer pension contribution, subsidised meals, permanent health insurance, childcare vouchers, a cycle-to-work scheme and access to a free confidential employee assistance programme.”

But the radical trade union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) isn’t buying it. While they have publicly stated that paying above the Living Wage (which in London is meant to be £9.15) is to be applauded, the IWW says it’s moot in circumstances in which employees are not guaranteed the necessary hours to provide for themselves.

IWW members leafleting on Euston Road outside Friends House, just around the corner from UCL.
IWW members leafleting on Euston Road outside Friends House, just around the corner from UCL.

One of these employees, Martin Nickolay-Blake said: “Because we pushed [to] phase out zero hours contracts, the building management decided to agree to just that – by firing us. We didn’t expect this, as the workforce and management had an informal agreement promising that no jobs would be axed, but from the way we were sacked it’s clear that this was politically motivated.”

Whether the sackings were really politically motivated or not, many activists and trade unionists have seen this as an affront to the livelihoods of three people. In fact, after speaking to several demonstrators on Friday, I was came to realise this protest is just one chapter of a much larger saga.

Martin (left) holding an IWW flag, alongside an IWGB member.
Martin (left) holding an IWW flag, alongside an IWGB member.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the protest was the presence of the International Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), a “worker-run union organising the unorganised, the abandoned and the betrayed”. The branch of the IWGB specific to University of London recently exploded in size due to their 3 Cosas Campaign demanding full employee rights (ie. sick pay, pensions and holidays) for the university’s predominantly migrant cleaning staff.

I spoke to Jason, the President of IWGB, and he explained: “The reason why we’re here is because although our focuses are slightly different, we’re still campaigning on the same issue, which is the precarious situation workers face in this country. Zero hours contracts are just one example of that”.

Hannah Webb, a UCL student and former UCL Union Sabbatical Officer, who also joined the picket told me: “Having solidarity with workers is an extremely important act. It helps us to combat precarious and low paid work that so many of us are in. Students need to remember that they themselves will likely be in this same situation either when they graduate or when they find work to support their education.”

Hannah, former UCLU Sabbatical Officer showing her solidarity with the victimised workers.
Hannah Webb, former UCLU Sabbatical Officer taking a stand against zero-hours contracts and trade union victimisation.

Zero hours contracts and other issues related to low wage work are so problematic in the UK, in part, because we have so little information on their impacts on households. Despite UCL’s promise that, within six months of graduation, approximately 90% of undergraduates enter the workforce or pursue additional studies, there’s very little data on what sort of hours people work. We know that unemployment technically fell to 1.91 million in 2015, but someone with a zero hours contract is lumped in to the same statistics as those that “enjoy” full-time hours.

David Dahlborn fulfilling his dream of playing with the SOAS samba band on a picket line.
David Dahlborn fulfilling his dream of playing with the SOAS samba band on a picket line.

After the protest I talked to David Dahlborn, UCLU Halls & Accommodation Representative, who was as enthusiastic as ever, telling me:

“Looking at the IWW, what I think is inspiring is the solidarity and mutual support – people standing up for one another. There were cleaners there, and students and office workers united against an injustice, determined to right a wrong. To me this principle is what a union – a trade union or a students union – is about: mutual support and assistance for justice and equality. And the impressive thing is that this works throughout society – the same principle of solidarity and support can be applied in the UCLU rent campaign. If you unite to improve something you believe in and don’t back down when the bosses say it’s impossible, that’s when you can change the world – be it by cutting the rent, winning a better standard of living in student accommodation or abolishing tuition fees!”

In the end, the question prescient at this specific protest – whether or not the fired employees of the Friends’ Meeting House will keep their jobs – remains unanswered. Martin seems confident they will.

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SOAS Justice for Cleaners take action

Next week the SOAS Justice for Cleaners Campaign will be kicking off again as it enters the next stage in its struggle for justice and equality for the cleaners at the university. The demand will now be for all cleaners to be brought in-house to break the two-tier workforce that the bosses at SOAS and the cleaning company ISS are currently using to pay the out-sourced cleaners less and give the worse terms and conditions that directly employed staff.

Staff and students in solidarity at a protest in support of better sick-pay, holidays and pensions for the cleaners at SOAS.
Staff and students in solidarity at a protest in support of better sick-pay, holidays and pensions for the cleaners at SOAS last year.

Starting on Wednesday, there will be protest actions, meetings and fund-raisers to force the bosses to stop their discriminatory practices and all students, staff and supporters are welcome to join!

Details:

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Join the facebook event here.

For a short history of the Justice for Cleaners Campaign at SOAS, check out this brilliant video:

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The Provost Missed His Pay-Day Party. Nobody cried.

We had a great time at the protest outside Provost Michael Arthur’s office today. It was a no-show for poor old Provost, however, even though we’d brought him cake!

(…seriously though, we despise the Provost)

Joining this protest against inequality at UCL were members form the UCL Justice for Cleaners Campaign and UCL UCU, who spoke about how cleaners are organising a campaign for better pay and conditions and how the top UCL fat cats are getting rich from cutting university workers’ pensions.

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The protest took place outside the Provost’s Office and Jeremy Bentham’s creepy cabinet.
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We handed out lots of flyers!

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The banner of UCL UNISON, the trade union of the Justice for Cleaners Campaign.
The banner of UCL UNISON, the trade union of the Justice for Cleaners Campaign.

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One of the speakers at the protest from UCL UCU.
One of the speakers at the protest from UCL UCU.
Cake to commemorate that Provost earns as much in 19 days as a cleaner earns in a year.
Cake to commemorate that Provost earns as much in 19 days as a cleaner earns in a year.

Ready for Provost’s Pay-Day Party! (Chants and more)

Who’s been a good Provost, then? xD

Tomorrow UCL Provost Michael Arthur will have earned as much in 2015 as an out-sourced cleaner here earns in an entire year, about £16,000. In order to commemorate this momentous achievement we’re organising a party for him and Everybody is invited! Find all the details here.

A banner from the UCL Justice for Cleaners Campaign outside SOAS, where cleaners organised themselves, demanded and won vastly improved wages and conditions. April 2014.
A banner from the UCL Justice for Cleaners Campaign outside SOAS, where cleaners organised themselves, demanded and won vastly improved wages and conditions. April 2014.

There will be party hats and cake for those attend the party! We hope that Mr Arthur will join us so that we can ask him how he sleeps at night and why he thinks the migrant workers who clean his office should earn little more then a living wage and not enjoy the same privileges as himself the other male, white fat cat bosses.

Spend the money on cleaners' wages, no the bosses!
Spend the money on cleaners’ wages, no the bosses!

We should, of course prepare to shout a few chants in case he decides to stay in his office and sulk. Here’s a bit of inspiration:

“Michael Arthur [or Provost, Provost] we’ve got beef!
Pay your staff, don’t be a thief!”

“UCL, shame on you!
Pay your cleaners what they’re due!”

“Michael Arthur, you old toad,
Pay your workers what they’re owed!”

“UCL, hey hey,
Wage gaps are not OK!”

and finally…

“UCL, there’s a solution;
Better income distribution!!”

Tomorrow’s protest will not only be about the unjust pay gaps between cleaners and the 1% of UCL, but also to highlight the gender and racial pay gaps at our university and to demand that workers are given a larger say over how wages are distributed. Read our demands here.

See you tomorrow, Michael Arthur!!

Provost’s Pay-Day – Protesting Inequality at UCL!

On Monday January 19th, UCL Provost Michael Arthur will have earned in 19 day what the lowest paid full-time workers at UCL – outsourced cleaners – earn in a year. Arthur earns almost 20 times as much in a year as the people who clean his office and private kitchen.

We are going to protest this grotesque inequality by holding “a party” (see link) outside the Provost’s office in the Main Wilkins building at UCL at 1pm on Monday. Everybody is invited!

Provost Michael Arthur is one of the wealthiest men on campus. He earns 20 times as much as a cleaner ...wonder who works the hardest?
Fat cat Provost Michael Arthur is one of the wealthiest men on campus. He earns 20 times as much as a cleaner and has his home paid for by the uni …wonder who works the hardest?

At a time when our lecturers’ pensions are under threat, when many of the lowest paid workers are on outsourced contracts that force them into in appalling working conditions with few working rights, it is outrageous that the university can pretend that there’s not enough money for everybody. Michael Arthur alone in senior management gets paid £360,000+ per year

Beyond the Provost, there are 113 members of UCL staff who every year are paid more than 10 times the annual wages of a cleaner. All together they earn a combined £21.5m.

At other campuses across the country, students have also been taking action against unequal pay,

The salaries of  those at UCL who are paid more then 10 times as much as an out-sourced cleaner. 114 out of 11,000 employees, these are literally the people who constitute "the 1%" of UCL!
The salaries of those at UCL who are paid more then 10 times as much as an out-sourced cleaner. 114 out of 11,000 employees, these are literally the people who constitute “the 1%” of UCL!

To counter the growing inequality that is making UCL extremely wealthy at the expense of staff and students our demands are:

1. A 5:1 pay ratio at all universities, colleges and schools, with all in-house and outsourced workers paid at least the Living Wage

2. Action to close the gender and racial pay gaps. Low pay at our university disproportionately affects women and migrant workers

3. Democratic structures which put workers, students and local communities in control of our universities, colleges and schools, including on issues such as pay.

Come along and show the Provost that we won’t stand for this absurd inequality of pay.

Our staff make our education possible, while management pay themselves absurdly high figures to do nothing but wreck it. Pay them decent wages with decent conditions!