soas occupied! free the cleaners!

SOAS (a college of the University of London) has been occupied by student and supporters over the immigration raid which we reported recently.  SOAS management appear to have been involved in the raid, but in any case it is clear that it represents an attack on workers as a response to their decision to organise for a living wage.  The ‘two tier workforce’ is not a necesary fact, it is created and enforced through state violence.

45-50 Immigration police entered through the fire doors and the main entrance to the room and surrounded the cleaning staff; the police officers were in riot gear. They cleaners were locked in the room and then led one by one into another room, where their immigration status was checked during which they had no representation or even a translator (many staff are native Spanish speakers). A lot of the cleaners were in emotional distress. A trade union representative was refused access to the staff.  The raid was instigated by the cleaning contractor ISS who requested the police action. Two members of SOAS Management were present during the raid liasing with the police, suggesting that they had prior knowledge of the raid.9 Cleaners, five of whom are UNISON members were taken into detention. One detained cleaner was six months pregnant, she is thought to have collapsed during the events.

We cannot let this stand.

A press release from the occupation follows.  Occupiers are asking for solidarity:

1. Support at a rally at 4.30pm today on SOAS steps (off Russell Square).  Join and strengthen the occupation.

2. Messages of support to freesoascleaners@gmail.com, messages of protest to Paul Webley, SOAS Principal at pw2@soas.ac.uk – particularly appreciated from trade unionists.

3.  Occupiers blog here.  Facebook group here.

Press release from the occupation

SOAS directorate block occupied over brutal deportation of SOAS cleaners

University cleaners who won living wage detained after dawn raid

Students and allies at the University of London’s School of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have occupied the university today to protest against managers’ attacks on migrant workers.

Nine cleaners from the university were taken into detention after a dawn raid by immigration police on Friday.

Five have already been deported, and the others could face deportation within days. One has had a suspected heart attack and was denied access to medical assistance and even water. One was over 6 months pregnant. Many have families who have no idea of their whereabouts.

The cleaners won the London Living Wage and trade union representation after a successful “Justice for Cleaners” campaign that united workers of all backgrounds and student activists.
Activists believe the raid is managers’ “revenge” for the campaign.

Immigration officers were called in by cleaning contractor ISS, even though it has employed many of the cleaners for years. Cleaning staff were told to attend an ‘emergency staff meeting’ at 6.30am on Friday (June 12).

This was used as a false pretext to lure the cleaners into a closed space from which the immigration officers were hiding to arrest them.

More than 40 officers were dressed in full riot gear and aggressively undertook interrogations and then escorted them to the detention centre. Neither legal representation nor union support were present due to the secrecy surrounding the action. Many were unable to communicate let alone fully understand what was taking place due to the denial of interpreters.

SOAS management were complicit in the immigration raid by enabling the officers to hide in the meeting room beforehand and giving no warning to them.

The cleaners were interviewed one by one. They were allowed no legal or trade union representation, or even a translator (many are native Spanish speakers).

The cleaners are members of the Unison union at SOAS. They recently went out on strike (Thursday 28 May) to protest the sacking of cleaner and union activist Jose Stalin Bermudez.

The occupation has issued a list of demands to SOAS management:

  1. We call on the directorate to request the secretary of state to immediately release the detainees and to prevent the deportation of the three cleaners who are still in detention in the UK.
  2. For the directorate to release a public statement condemning what has happened to the SOAS cleaners and calling for their immediate release and return.
  3. To campaign for the return of the cleaners who have already been deported.
  4. To bring all contract staff in house. SOAS should not use contractors, ISS or others.
  5. To keep immigration officers from entering campus under ANY circumstances or other forms of collaboration with immigration or police. Universities are for education not for state violence and oppression.
  6. A year’s wage as reparations for all detained and deported staff.
  7. To hold accountable SOAS managers who were complicit in facilitating the raid and detention of the cleaners, refusing to aid a sick worker and a pregnant woman.
  8. To reinstate Jose Stalin Bermudez, the SOAS UNISON branch chair.
  9. To respect the right to organise in Trade Unions unimpeded.
  10. To provide space and resources for a public meeting to build support for the SOAS 9 and other migrants, in education and beyond, affected by immigration control and racism.
  11. Amnesty for all those involved.

One of the detained cleaners today stated, “We’re honest people not animals. We are just here to earn an honest living for our families. SOAS management are being unfair.”

Joanne, one of the occupying students said,
“Universities should be sanctuaries: places free of violence and aggression. SOAS’s reputation as a university has been tainted today due to the complicity of state brutality in the arrest of the cleaners.”

Graham Dyer, lecturer in Economics of Developing Countries and SOAS branch chair of lecturers’ union UCU, said:
“Our fight has united lecturers, staff and students and has rocked SOAS management. Those managers are now lashing out.

“It is a disgrace that SOAS management saw fit to use a seat of learning to intimidate migrant workers. This is their underhand revenge and we will do all we can to stop migrant workers paying the price.”

The campaign to stop the deportation is supported by Tony Benn, MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, film director Ken Loach, and many trade unionists and student activists.

John McDonnell MP said:
“As living wage campaigns are building in strength, we are increasingly seeing the use of immigration statuses to attack workers fighting against poverty wages and break trade union organising.

“The message is that they are happy to employ migrant labour on poverty wages, but if you complain they will send you back home. It is absolutely shameful.”

Ken Loach said:

“This raid is the action of a bully. Migrant workers are amongst the most vulnerable – poorly paid and far from home.

“Recent action by Unison to secure better wages and conditions at SOAS was good news. Now we wonder if the SOAS cleaners are being targeted because they dared to organise as trade unionists.”

The current occupation is a reflection of broad outrage against these actions by all sectors of society. This raid is widely seen as a continuation of current trends to remove immigrant labour and to maintain impossibly low wages.

Cleaning contractor ISS used the same tactics against tube cleaners that went on strike with the result that key activists were deported. The use of immigration law is bering used for union busting.

contact: Clare Solomon on 07958 034 181
Email: freesoascleaners@googlemail.com
Blog: freesoascleaners.blogspot.com

8 thoughts on “soas occupied! free the cleaners!

  1. … so there are a few of us down there. A lively mass meeting with perhaps 80 people was going on when I left. People are needed and welcome to stay the night, and during the day, for the forseeable future, so get down and get involved!

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  2. Just left SOAS – At least 25 people are staying the night. Spirits are high. There’s a demonstration at 4.30pm tomorrow, starting at the occupied Directorate and heading round other university buildings (Kings, Birkbeck etc) where ISS have contracts. Bring brooms, pots and pans and marigolds: ”SOAS: Clean up your act. Stop racist deportations now!” People can still get in and out fairly freely. All welcome.

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  3. March in Solidarity

    Tuesday 16th June

    SOAS Steps 4:30pm for 5pm Start

    (Thornhaugh st, Russell Sq, WC1 Call 07971719797)

    Bring Brooms, Cleaning items and Banners

    For more info call Clare 07958 034 181, send messages of solidarity to freesoascleaners@gmail.com

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  4. URGENT

    An injunction has been served on the occupation; it now under threat of eviction! Please get down there as soon as you can, if you can!

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  5. Next demo, 12 noon, Wednesday 17th. Could be really important. Looks like negotiations will be concluding around 10/11/12am. As always, numbers and commitment decide strength, strength decides the deal.

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  6. The occupation ended just after midday on Wednesday with a ”deal” struck with SOAS Director, Paul Webley. There was a rally outside to celebrate but as you can see from the final letter that SOAS committed to, the key demand on the university agreeing not to facilitate immigration raids in the future has not been met.

    The one concrete concession was that SOAS will now write to the Home Secretary – pretty shameful on their part considering that was the least they should have done as soon as the cleaners were detained, occupation or no occupation.

    Full report later – but after all the positives and the real feeling of strength and solidarity on Monday night, the drift towards agreeing to a deal on Tuesday seems to have proved unstoppable. It was said today that staying ”would have risked losing the concessions that had been won” – but other deportation activists have been dubious about the practical value of the letter to the Home Office and it should be noted that the cleaners themselves were keen to prioritise the commitment of union consultation, or at least receiving notice, before further raids by Border police are made. SOAS are still claiming they cannot legally agree to that because of their contract with ISS. Given practice elsewhere in London, this is clearly untrue.

    One further point: the threat of eviction may ultimately have proved a hollow one – there is some confusion over the legal status of the injunction, but it now appears that it would’ve taken until Monday for the university to get the all-clear to remove us.

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