Cleaning and catering staff at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have been on indefinite strike since 15 July, having taken selective action over the preceding months. They are not employed by BEIS: the cleaners work for one private facilities management company, ISS; the catering staff for another, Aramark. What was once an integral part of the business of government delivered by civil servants, all entitled to the same terms and conditions fought for and won by trade unions, is now a complicated patchwork of contracts, often owned by large international corporations, with workers on vastly differing rates of pay, entitlement to holiday and sick leave, and other benefits.

ISS took over the contract in April from ENGIE, and inherited the staff and the industrial action – although under anti-union laws the Public and Commercial Services Union was required to re-ballot for strike action. The contract started badly, with dozens of workers not being paid correctly or not being paid at all. PCS members and reps working in the same building – I’m one – stepped in to support their colleagues with money and food donations. Questions were asked in the House of Commons.

These employees, providing the fundamental services required to run any large office block, are paid as little as £8.47 an hour: the London living wage is £10.55 an hour (just under £22,000 a year for 40 hours a week). The permanent secretary at BEIS earns £180,000, around ten times the salary of a cleaner in his department and more than the prime minister’s £158,000. Boris Johnson boasts of his record expanding the London living wage as mayor of London. On 25 July, in answer to a question in the House of Commons, he committed to paying the living wage to ‘every single entry-level worker and cleaner in Whitehall’. Nadhim Zahawi, a new minister at BEIS, recently affirmed his support for the London living wage in an all-staff meeting.

But it is proving impossible to get ISS to move on this – all the more strange as it pays the London living wage at other sites. The company’s 2018 Corporate Responsibility report says: ‘We promote the Real Living Wage to current and prospective clients and as Service Provider pay the Real Living Wage to staff employed at our offices.’

One reason for the impasse is that the BEIS facilities management contract, which took 18 months to procure, was priced at a rate that did not include paying the London living wage. Why not? Other government departments have included it as a requirement in invitations to tender, and PCS would have insisted that the London living wage was a condition. But BEIS chose not to consult with the union before awarding the contract.

ISS wants BEIS to pay for any increase in the hourly rate, as happened in February when the contract was held by ENGIE. The department could have agreed to pay the London living wage then, but decided instead to conduct a pay comparison exercise. This showed that the contracted-out staff working at BEIS were getting even less than others in similar jobs, and the department paid more into the contract so ENGIE could increase their employees’ pay to the current rate. But comparing low rates of pay with other low rates of pay in a notoriously low-paid sector is hardly likely to deliver real pay improvements for workers.

The government is making plans to cut taxes for higher earners but seems unable to commit to its own promises to pay a living wage to the workers it depends on for basic security, cleaning and catering.