KCL Justice for Cleaners’ First Campaign Meeting: A Different Kind of Lecture

KCL Justice for Cleaners’ first campaign meeting was held on Thursday evening in one of Strand Campus’ classrooms. Cleaners, activists, students and academics came together into a lecture-like setting and through discussion similar to what you would expect in a classroom seminar. The topic? “How to turn a wish list of demands into reality”, and like any good seminar, there was required pre-reading – Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. 

The meeting was initiated by Unison King’s College London activists with the support of Colin Inniss, Unison’s Regional Organiser, and his team.  On 15th September, the cleaners at King’s College submitted through the public service union Unison a demand to the College and Servest asking to be treated as the College’s staff and urging the end of outsourcing. The meeting was organised to bring all interested parties together and plan further action for the campaign whose aim is to secure better working terms and conditions for the College’s cleaning staff.

The call for “dignity” is repeated over and over again, in different accents and languages.

Bringing the cleaners back in-house and ending outsourcing, honest and transparent allocation of working hours, being paid the London Living Wage uplift from December each year instead of April, and formal recognition of Unison. These are the demands outlined in the formal claim Unison King’s College sent to the College and Servest on 15th of September. They are waiting for a response by the end of this week or next week the latest. On Saturday, all workers will hold a meeting to decide upon future actions.

Colin Innis called the demands a “wish list”. Given the nature of previous talks with Servest and the College, he says Unison does not expect to gain all of what it requests immediately, rather hoping to open negotiations through which it will eventually “get everything and more”. Mr. Innis invoked Sun Tzu: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war”, he quoted, emphasising the need for careful planning and “building support and solidarity” before radical actions.

However, as people are keen to stress throughout the meeting, it is a wish list of “basic rights”. Therefore, the force of the demands lies in their reasonableness. “They should be non-negotiable”, argues one student.

“If you want them to wear the King’s College logo on their chest, you should give them the same benefits other employees have.”

Out of all, the first demand is the strongest; it requests equal treatment with all other King’s staff in regards to sick pay, holidays, maternity and paternity leaves, and pension rights. The cleaners have the big, bold, red King’s logo on the front of their uniform, but the heart of their story is on its sleeve: there it says Servest, although more subtly. This creates a lot of confusion about who their employer is: “You may think they are King’s College’s staff because of the logo, but they’re not.”, explains a representative from Unison. The College is currently outsourcing its cleaning services to Servest, a company which provides essential facilities management services; in other words, the cleaners are Servest employees who provide services for King’s.

And the differences between being Servest employees and King’s staff are striking. Unison’s representative further argues: “If you want them to wear the King’s College logo on the chest, you should give them the same benefits other employees have”. For example, cleaners receive the statutory sick pay: this means that in case of illness, they get nothing for the first three days, after which they receive £35.74 for the first week and subsequently, pay is capped at £89.35 a week for a maximum of 28 weeks. In stark contrast, for King’s staff sick pay gradually increases with every additional year of service for the first five years: whilst those in their first four months of service receive up to the equivalent of one month’s full pay, the employees with more than five years of service are entitled to sick pay worth up to their full pay for the first six months and then half of the other six months’ pay. “As a cleaner, you cannot afford being sick”, says the representative. Because of this, many workers choose to come to work even if they are seriously ill, a practice known as “presenteerism”.

“Mi amigo”, a Unison representative cheerfully introduces a cleaner about to give a speech, “You can see him, but you don’t.”

Unison King’s College has a long history of striving for improving working conditions of the cleaning staff. Most recently, the cleaners went on a general strike last March, protesting excessive workloads, poor working conditions, and a possible wave of redundancies. This led to changes in the cleaning contract management, additional cleaners being brought in and better working materials.

Asked for a statement about the KCL Justice for Cleaners campaign, a spokesperson from the College said that: “Our cleaners play a critical role in the operation of the university and we value their service. This was recognised in the employment terms, which King’s ensured Servest included in its employees’ contracts at the start of our working relationship. These included paying the London Living Wage, full-time hours for the majority of staff and employing people who live locally. We have been talking to Servest almost daily and working with Unison to address issues our cleaners have been raising.”

But the fight for bringing the cleaners in-house is not exclusive to King’s. Other London universities have recently committed to bringing their cleaners in-house: after 11 years of campaigning, SOAS ended the outsourcing of cleaning staff this year; the Justice for LSE Cleaners campaign achieved the same goal following one year of action. Representatives of both universities’ campaigns were present at the meeting and shared their experiences.

Around 50 people attended the meeting, including the workers themselves, students, representatives from Unison, King’s College’s Student Union (KCLSU), KCL Justice for Cleaners, the University and College Union (UCU), and LSE’s and SOAS’ own Justice for Cleaners’ campaigns.

“The meeting shows how important the cleaners are to KCL students and staff and are a fundamental part of the college community – the huge interest and support we continue to receive from the students shows this.”, says a Unison representative.

A large image showing a serene chapel interior is projected. It is none other than King’s very own and it belongs to the video shot and created by Roar for last year’s campaign which is shown at the meeting. Many people are watching the video for the first time and, with it, also seeing for the first time the people who clean their lecture rooms, hallways and favourite coffee spots. “Mi amigo”, a Unison representative cheerfully introduces a cleaner about to give a speech, “You can see him, but you don’t”, referring to the video which features shots of the cleaner. Nevertheless, his words feel like a universal truth.

Each of the cleaners attending the meeting shared their experience throughout the night. A sense of community and brotherhood can be felt around the room as their words unfold. No, they will not bend their demands, but they are not irreverent. The cleaners are organised and determined, their voices are steady and strong. The call for “dignity” is repeated over and over again, in different accents and languages. Their speeches make it clear that they are extremely aware of what their requests are and what will take to fulfil them. All emphasise how much they need the support of King’s students and academics; “You guys are important for King’s”, says one of the cleaners. And none forget to express gratitude and give their thanks to all students and societies, stating that this could not have been possible without their support.

All emphasise how much they need the support of King’s students and academics: “You guys are important for King’s”, says one of the cleaners.

The main objectives of the campaign are to build awareness of the cleaners’ situation and increase the visibility of the campaign across all King’s campuses – a lot of students and academic staff are clueless about both the working terms and conditions and the fact that the College is outsourcing its cleaning services. The campaign also seeks to connect unions and societies towards the common goal of improving the cleaners’ condition. “The cleaners have the full support of the UCU and the Marxist Society.”, says Joe Attard, PhD student at King’s and President of the Marxist Society. He urges everyone to “help break the cleaners out of their isolation” and proposes connecting the movement with the already successful campaigns at SOAS and LSE, but also to “politicise the campaign by linking with the local Labour Party and Momentum groups.” However, besides these objectives, lies an even more fundamental aim: to create a bond between the students and academic staff and the cleaners. It is argued that students can use their privileged positions to push for a change because King’s, like any other university, cares about its students and its students’ satisfaction ratings.

Thursday’s talks materialised into plans for concrete actions. A mailing list for activists, leaflets explaining the cleaners’ campaign and events at Guy’s campus with the cleaners at lunch time to build awareness are all on the game plan. Also, all interested in the campaign are asked to join “KCL Justice for Cleaners // Student Organising Group” on Facebook where people can plan events, distribute tasks and share ideas.

Perhaps the most ingenious suggestion is that of inviting the cleaners to give a 5-minute talk about their struggle and campaign at the beginning or end of lectures. After all, this very room in the King’s building has hosted many lectures on Marxism or social justice, but none quite as vivid as this.

Photo Credits: Cathy Wang