Migrant cleaners strike against poor conditions

Members of the United Voices of the World trade union working on government premises are walking out over demands for occupational sick pay and the London Living Wage.

UVW Cleaners
UVW Cleaners

Image: United Voices of the World

Members of the United Voices of the World union protesting outside the Ministry of Justice.

Rob Cole

Cleaners represented by the United Voices of the World (UVW) trade union are walking out over poor pay and working conditions at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in what is the first co-ordinated industrial action taken by low-paid migrant workers in London.

Starting yesterday (7 August) and continuing today and tomorrow, outsourced UVW cleaners under contract with OCS Group will be walking out from three MoJ sites, including its headquarters at Petty France, while UVW cleaners are also walking out from Kensington and Chelsea Town Halls, where they are under contract with global services company Amey.

Strikes will also be held at the end of August by UVW workers employed by Compass for Health Care America (HCA), the world’s largest private healthcare provider, at eight hospitals and care centres including Guy’s Cancer Centre and Harley Street Clinic.

The strike has received universal backing from within the UVW union, with the ballot and vote held in July seeing a 100 per cent turnout and a 100 per cent vote in favour of industrial action.

Founded in 2014, UVW is a members-led, campaigning trade union that supports vulnerable groups of precarious, low-paid and largely migrant workers in the UK. The union has secured numerous victories for its members over the living wage, sick pay, holiday pay and in-house status across London, including at The Daily Mail offices and the London School of Economics.

The cleaners on strike this week are mostly Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking Latin Americans and Africans from Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Principe.

Those on strike across the various sites share three common demands:

1. An occupational sick pay scheme

Amey, OCS and Compass do not have an occupational sick pay scheme. This means workers rely on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), which is unpaid for the first three days of illness. Thereafter workers will receive just £18 per day from the fourth day of sickness onwards. As a result, workers are often forced to work when sick in order to meet their living costs associated with life in the nation’s capital.

2. Parity of terms and conditions with directly employed staff

UVW states that the second demand is equality between subcontracted and directly employed staff in terms of holiday entitlements, hours and overtime pay, removing a two-tier workforce that UVW says leads to undercutting and a race to the bottom.

3. Payment of the London Living Wage with guaranteed annual increments

The London Living Wage currently stands at £10.20 per hour, significantly higher than the National Living Wage – formerly the National Minimum Wage until its rebrand by the Conservative Government in 2016 – which stands at £7.83 per hour.

Mauricio, a UVW member who cleans for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, said: "It is really hard to survive in London, you have to think about what you can and can’t buy, which bill to pay, it’s very difficult. I wanted to live near my work but it is impossible for me. I live in a room in an apartment with another family, that is how it is here."

Striking MoJ worker Luis added: "Even though we are paid minimum wage, the company still tries to make us work harder and harder, doing more tasks and cleaning more and the company doesn’t send anyone to replace the workers who are sick or absent. It is because they don’t even listen to us or treat us with respect that we have to strike. It is for this that we call this place the Ministry of Injustice."

The Green Party has lent its support to the striking workers, with Co-leader Jonathan Bartley saying: “Cleaners bravely striking for their rights today have made history in the fight against the exploitation of low-paid workers. It is shameful that the MoJ doesn’t pay its cleaners enough to live on. In this age of insecurity, government departments should be leading by example, not leaving their own cleaners without basic workers’ rights. I stand in full solidarity with those striking today as they demand to be paid the London Living Wage, to get proper sick pay and to be given the same rights as their colleagues.”