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A Sky Full of Swallows: Why Students Should Stand by Cleaners

I open the King´s College website and the first thing that leaps out is: ´Broaden your Horizons: Work overseas this summer’. Let’s just hope that if we work overseas this summer we do not face the same appalling conditions that our cleaning staff, many of whom have come from abroad, put up with day in, day out, to the detriment of their physical and mental health.

Mary tells us how, due to physical fatigue caused by excessive workloads, she went to the hospital last Saturday morning, and was put on a drip until 9pm; Carla explains how she fell down the stairs while carrying cleaning equipment, and was off work for two weeks without pay or compensation, and even blamed for rushing; Thomas tells us about his elbow injuries from having to carry excessive weight over long shifts; Fernando reveals that he is sent to clean the morgue without gloves or a facemask, and has seen his asthma and psoriasis get worse… the list goes on. How can we explain that in a university that is ranked consistently in the top twenty in the world for Medicine, we are endorsing working conditions that cause long-term health issues for the people who work tirelessly to provide us with the appropriate conditions to study?

So what is the problem? Contracts are precarious in the world of work, and one of the terrible buzzwords is ‘outsourcing’. Outsourcing is said to be a way for businesses to save money and to run things more effectively. The main company, in this case King’s, gives a contract to another company that offers a good deal, like Servest, and they will be in charge of administrating the cleaning staff. Surely it is common sense that if it is a cheaper deal, then money is being cut somewhere? In the case of Servest, it would seem that one cleaner is doing the work that was previously designated to two or three people, for the same wage and without the necessary cleaning materials.

We thought that final year was hard work; try cleaning two buildings with six floors, 14-15 offices to a floor, 19 bathrooms, plus classrooms and passage ways. One of those buildings doesn’t have a lift. This is what Oscar has to do every day, as well as cleaning the Terrace and being available when events are put on. Meanwhile, Mary and Laura, who are both suffering from the same muscle pains stretching up their right arm and neck, clean the whole of the Somerset house wing on their own, right down to the skirting boards. If one of them is off sick, the other is left to do double the work for the same pay. This is particularly problematic considering that both are suffering from health issues due to the excessive workload.

All this and not even a ‘thank you’ or a ‘well-done’. Instead, cleaners are faced with continual disciplinary action and complaints. How does it feel when you get bad marks on those essays that you spent sleepless days and nights on? Well, imagine coming in at 5AM and working your body into the ground, only to be told how badly you are doing it. One cleaner faced disciplinary action as she was accused of putting cardboard boxes in the general rubbish bin. The psychological impact of the systematic bullying found in the cleaning sector is disgusting and it is happening right under our noses.

The cleaner’s strike from Thursday 26th to Friday 27th of January has the simplest demands: reduced workloads and respect. Our cleaners have not yet been moved up to minimum wage, which was raised to £9.75 in December, meaning that they are technically living below the poverty line; our cleaners are not entitled to the same rights of sick pay, annual leave, maternity pay, paternity pay, or adoption pay, as any other members of the King’s staff, all of which should be basic working rights. Nonetheless, all our cleaners are asking for is to put an end to conditions that are damaging their health and well-being. Unfortunately, our labour laws are some of the worst in Europe, and create a system open to these kinds of abuses. So we have to step in where our legal system fails.

What can we do? Strike. Email your professors and talk to your friends. Tell them why it is important for us to stand by our cleaning staff this Thursday and Friday and say no. ‘NO! I will not stand by and endorse this abusive treatment’, ‘NO! I will not pay £9000 a year to see the cleaning contract handed out to the lowest bidder that may cut costs, but cost people’s well-being’, ‘NO! I will not accept exploitative conditions and precarious contracts for immigrant workers.’

If this is too much of a stretch, then please take the time to join us between lectures, to talk to the cleaners and hear their stories. Write letters, petitions, and make your voice heard – in the current state of education we, as students, are the clients, and what we say matters. And, at the very least, clean up your rubbish, leave rooms tidy, put the chairs back in their place and say thank you to the people who make studying in these buildings possible.

It is not just by working abroad that we can ‘broaden our horizons’: let’s open our eyes right here and listen to others – people are encyclopedias of knowledge that can reveal universes undocumented in the thousands of books of the Maughan Library. If we want to work towards a world where one day we can hope for stable work and good living conditions for ourselves and the generations to come, we need to begin cooperating more to find constructive solutions. And it begins by standing by our cleaners.

"I'M NOT A MACHINE"... Cleaners protest at Strand on 9 December

“I’M NOT A MACHINE”… Cleaners protest at Strand on 9 December

Oscar told us that in Colombia there is a popular saying that goes: ‘One swallow doesn’t bring summer’. Apparently, when many swallows are seen flying together it means that summer has come. To put this phrase in the words of Genghis Khan, it means that ‘one arrow alone can be broken’. But imagine a sky full of swallows against a backdrop of thunderous clouds that pour down and form rivers, sow seeds, water thirsty plants, and build up a beautiful forest full of birds, bees, and olive trees; an entire ecosystem that thrives and works because each piece of nature plays its valuable part in the puzzle.

Let’s turn King’s into this blossoming forest, where students, cleaners, professors, administrative staff, and management, all work together to create a proper place of study.

Why King’s cleaning staff are calling for strike action

COMMENT: When 90% of cleaning staff agree to go on strike, it’s a serious issue

Got more to this story? Email [email protected]!

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