progress for UCL cleaners campaign

Greg Brown reports on a recent success for the Living Wage campaign at University College London

Most cleaners are currently paid at or just above the National Minimum Wage. It is probably fair to say the average pay is just £6/hour. We are not aware that any cleaner receives sick pay, nor any kind of pension rights. Holiday leave is at the statutory minimum.

Some cleaners have reported that they have friends who have been intimidated in the workplace with their immigration status. I don’t want to go into any more detail given the sensitivity of the issue, but anyone who knows anything about the industry wouldn’t be surprised by the sort of things reported to us. It’s all disgusting but very textbook stuff.

UCL has now promised to pay staff the London Living Wage (LLW) as contracts “crystallise” – i.e. when they end and come up for renewal. Although we are told this is something that will be honoured irrespective of the forthcoming funding cuts, this is the most they have so far committed to.

Ultimately this was the bare minimum that they could have offered after making a U-turn on their previous stance. They’ve got away with a bare-bones commitment to the concept, but no pledge to fulfil this within any specific time-frame, with the Provost talking about this being over the next “couple of years”, which we were told is intentionally vague wording.

In reality we can see that this is because they simply don’t know the details of their contracts, their duration and expiration dates. We know some contracts will be “crystallising” over the next year, so we will thankfully see some workers better paid in the foreseeable future, while other contracts we know stretch until 2015, for example.

They say they will “work toward” moving toward LLW rates before then on the lengthier contracts. This is too vague a commitment to take at face value and is something that future waves of campaigners are going to pay very close attention to. Of course as they incrementally move “toward” the LLW, so moves forward the National Minimum Wage and the LLW increases likewise.

The Provost said: “to meet this serious commitment we will need to review also the levels of service we require and can reasonably afford in the difficult years ahead to bring down costs”. To say that alarm bells are ringing would be an understatement.

All in all this is of course a huge step forward. We just have to be very, very careful which next steps are now taken.

The campaign was initiated some two years ago or so by a small handful of students and one or two trade unionists. The proportionate demographic has essentially remained the same, being organised largely through students, and with some impetus from the trade unions which has grown in particular over the past six months or so.

All three campus unions were always supportive but for a long time took very passive roles. After we started to gain recognition the unions started to perk up and took on more of a public role, especially in writing letters of protest to the Provost. It’s worth stressing that a number of the campaign’s best activists have always been unionists, but they have been acting individually rather than officially on behalf of their unions.

Media pressure, especially from the Evening Standard, certainly played a tremendous role. This was both direct in embarrassing the Provost and UCL management publicly (UCL is extraordinarily image-conscious as it builds its “brand”) and indirect in encouraging a wave of additional support from individuals who the campaign would never have been able to reach to alone.

It would be easy to talk down the Standard but I don’t think that would be correct or even fair. They did a good job and it would be false to down-play the agenda-setting role of the media. If the Standard stuck to the kind of journalism it displayed in dealing with UCL it would be my (and I’m sure our) favourite paper. What sticks in the craw is their apparently aloof editorial team and that their own distributors earn £6/hour.

The campaign is not disbanding and it will not disband until:

>  The LLW is fully implemented;

> Staff and services are brought back in-house, away from outsourced malpractice;

>  All low-paid staff are sufficiently organised.

Discussing our level of organisation publicly is sensitive. Needless to say we do not have a big radical union emerging organically from workers. But organisation is growing and it is our main goal over the coming weeks and months.