Last Friday, a majority of the cleaners and porters working at the University of London’s halls of residence in Bloomsbury – the Garden Halls – began a five-day strike. Later this summer the halls will be closed and demolished. Some of the staff will be moved to jobs elsewhere in the university, but many will be made redundant. They are employed by Cofely GDF Suez, the multinational firm to which the university outsources its cleaning and maintenance services. The last day of work is 30 June. The strike – unlikely to succeed at this point, as some of the workers admit – was held to demand that Cofely guarantee no compulsory redundancies and transfer all workers to other jobs, in the university or elsewhere, on the same pay and conditions.
Many of the workers used to be members of Unison, but most left the union last year when it wouldn’t support a campaign for better working conditions for outsourced staff, then cancelled an election in which campaign supporters had stood for positions in the branch executive. Now more than half of outsourced staff at the Garden Halls are members of the IWGB, a small trade union that organises mainly among outsourced cleaning workers in London.
As soon as the closure of the Garden Halls was confirmed last year, IWGB members agreed to demand that jobs elsewhere in the university be reserved for workers from the Garden Halls (their contracts don’t specify the place of work beyond ‘the University of London’), with priority for the longest serving members of staff. But Cofely have said that to prioritise by length of service would be ‘discrimination’, and therefore illegal. Actually, it would only be illegal if it were shown to disfavour members of a group protected by the Equality Act, such as workers of a particular age, ethnicity or sex, which the IWGB says it wouldn’t.
Given the likelihood of multiple redundancies, the employer is required by law to consult and negotiate with the workforce. Rather than enter into negotiations with the IWGB, however, Cofely has instead been meeting with Unison. Like the university, Cofely describes Unison as ‘the recognised union’, as if this were an ontological category rather than an expression of the employer’s preference. Meetings were also held with a number of elected employee reps – including the IWGB University of London branch vice-chair, Sonia Chura – but she says that these were non-binding consultations rather than serious negotiations. Her protestations against the redundancy selection criteria were ignored.
Unison wouldn’t respond to questions about their membership numbers among outsourced workers, but the IWGB president, Jason Moyer-Lee, says it must represent a tiny minority of the total workforce, with membership concentrated among managers. From Cofely’s perspective, though, Unison still serves its purpose: by meeting regularly with the union, the company meets its legal obligation to negotiate. Unison is in effect agreeing the redundancy terms of a group of workers almost none of whom are its members.
Unison and Cofely have agreed a system whereby every worker will be awarded up to sixty points, and their total score used to determine whether they are kept on. Forty points will be awarded for how they do in appraisals, punctuality and so on. Of the other twenty, half will be awarded for workers’ ‘qualifications and continued personal development’ – Moyer-Lee says he doesn’t know which qualifications will be taken into account or how they will be weighted, but points out that ‘no one has a degree in cleaning’ – and half for whether a worker ‘regularly and consistently models all company values and behaviours in everything they do’. The ‘values’ in question are ‘commitment’, ‘cohesion’, ‘daring’ and ‘drive’. Moyer-Lee says that the vagueness of the buzzwords, their minimal relevance to the actual work of outsourced staff – cleaning toilets with daring? – and their subjectivity makes the redundancy process vulnerable to manipulation. ‘The workers at the Garden Halls have been the most active in the 3 Cosas Campaign,’ Chura told me. ‘The university and our bosses know this. They take photos and film us during our demonstrations. In my case it’s extremely clear: I’m on the blacklist.’
Chura is a Bolivian who arrived in the UK in September 2011 with £260. Most of the staff at risk are women from Latin America. Many of them went first to Spain, only to move again when the financial crisis struck. Romelia, a Colombian, left Spain for London three years ago. She has four cleaning jobs, two with Cofely and two with another outsourcing company listed on the FTSE 250. After sending money home to Colombia, and to her son who is studying pharmacology in Spain, she has little to survive on in London. Her job at the university pays her the London Living Wage and gives her a decent entitlement to holidays and sick pay, all of which she and her colleagues won with demonstrations and strikes over the last couple of years. Losing the job will mean undoing what she has fought for, and being forced to accept another job elsewhere, almost certainly with worse pay and conditions.
It’s clear what Cofely has to gain from the redundancy process. Unison’s motivation in acquiescing to it is harder to fathom. My repeated requests for comment have gone unanswered.