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“We’re the Invisibles!” Justice for Cleaners screen ‘Limpiadores’ (2015)

Limpiadores, a movie about the Justice for Cleaners campaign at SOAS, was screened on the strand as part of the continuing Justice for Cleaners campaign. SOAS and LSE have recently had success with similar campaigns, possibly paving the way for success at King’s this time around. However the crucial ingredient for success in those campaigns and in ours if it’s to get there, is support from the student body.

I couldn’t think of anything else to headline what was meant to be a report of a screening on campus. That’s stripping it bare; the KCL Justice for Cleaners campaign held a screening of the movie Limpiadores (2015) last week, and Q&A after, however unlike your normal movie with following Q&A, the people taking questions weren’t the director, producers, cast or crew. The people taking questions weren’t in the film at all, and yet it was a film about them. For though the School of African & Oriental Studies might have different coloured floors, walls, or bin bags, their cleaners and ours live in parallel. Our “Limpiadores,” and the brunt of their day to day experience working at our university was captured in this movie about a campaign for SOAS’s.

“The video is our reality.” said Maria*, who has worked here seven years.

A woman cleans a corridor in SOAS, bookended by empty words. Limpiadores (2015)

Maria’s words – and those of Carlos and Diana (*names changed to protect the cleaners) who also took questions and spoke their peace and that of their co-workers and fellow protesters – hammered home sentiments already drawn out by the film. Theirs are just as evocative, considered, and blunt as the words of Robinson or “Comandante” as he is known to his fellow SOAS limpiadores featured in the film, but I’ll get back to him.

The film about their lives – and the lives of a multitude of cleaners for our building rich city living their lives within the parameters set for them by companies like Servest – begins like any day: with breakfast. A man going about his getting ready ritual, preparing breakfast, then eating on his own. At two in the morning. I’ve always thought that an odd phrase, “two in the morning,” there’s nothing morning about it. Everyone else is asleep and anyone who’s ever had acute insomnia has been privy to the feeling of being the only person awake in a resting world. Loneliness doesn’t do it justice.

But I digress, these were merely my feelings watching the movie, “This is miserably early to be going to work.” He leaves his flat to walk the sleeping city - him and others the crew followed from the crack of da-…well, the midpoint of dusk – waiting for a bus that, given that this is prime Night Bus territory, won’t be coming for another half an hour, and given the nature of night buses, may not come at all. Seeing him I can only think of how already this constitutes protest in my mind.

Photo from protest in December 2016.

The cleaners give us their stories, tell of their hopes in coming to this country, which from the outside looking in, is advertised as a place of opportunity, prosperity and above all, basic human decency. Yet when they arrive from overseas in search of a better life, they find instead exploitation, being overworked without being able to afford to take days off, leading to a deterioration in their mental and physical state. They live in rooms shared with others in similar circumstances to themselves, in flats with more rooms like theirs.

You get to see the cleaners on shift, going about their work alone but, in close proximity to each other. The movie is so called, despite being English, because the majority of the staff that clean our city hail from Spanish speaking South America. Paraguy, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and of course many other parts of the world less developed than Great Britain. You see the cleaners laugh and joke around, enjoy each others company.

“We come late at night, and leave very early in the morning – we’re the invisibles! We come, do our work, and nobody sees us.” The man who says this says it with a smile, not a frown.

“They hire us because they know we’ll work hard, we’re hard working people and we’re proud of that.” says the Comandante. Robinson is bright, he’s eloquent and has enough charisma to disarm a bomb; it’s easy to see why he led the cleaners at SOAS. However he doesn’t attribute their success to him, or to them. Even once organised, when they thought they were making progress with the university, they instead were devastated by an immigration raid orchestrated by SOAS at an early morning meeting. True enlightened liberal fashion, somewhere in their hallowed halls Frantz Fanon was probably cheering.

“Bring us in house” and “Dignity and respect” is hardly asking much. Limpiadores (2015)

Those who were deported in the aforementioned raid, the date of which is branded on the memory of each cleaner who worked at the time, are caught up with. They lament the circumstances in which they were literally wrenched from their existence and plopped back into one they had left. Imagine, you wake up in your flat in North London, brush your teeth, go to work, there’s a meeting, you sit in the hall with your buddies and then the doors burst open, police types come in, you turn around and they stream in the back as well. We have a word for SOAS’s behaviour in this matter. It was shady.

We’ve a hospital as part of our university, we’ve a health centre on campus, we’ve a strategic vision that came out this year that states “Our vision is to make the world a better place” and all manner of “the sky is blue, let’s build together, yay synergy” nonsense which is laughable in the face of the everyday injustice that our cleaners are paid less than a living wage for hard, thankless work, and then made to suffer in silence as they work through illnesses inevitable when you live your life in early early morning, and in Blighty.

We, fellow students, have the chance to change things. I’ve told you what can happen to these people if they speak up on their own behalf, and yet they persist, the risks ever present but so too the conditions they have to work. We though, we the customers of this business, we humble scholars, can help correct the wrong here. The KCL Justice for Cleaners campaign will succeed if enough students get behind it. It really is as simple as that.

“I like my job.” says one of the female cleaners featured most in the film, something which, I must admit, threw me. She expresses that her job pays more than similar work in her native country, and that she likes working with the people she works with. The issue then, is not that these cleaners aren’t rockstars or astronauts. The issue is that they’re not afforded the same dignity in their work literally everyone else at our campus is. The issue is that they do not feel respected, or valued. The issue is that years, decades in some cases, of their service does not inspire loyalty towards them from their employers. The issue is that they have to parade around in King’s emblazoned clothing then collect a paycheck from some outside organisation that hires so many of them it truly sees them as disposable, rendering their lives precarious. The situation may not be completely untenable for them, but it is far from fair.

Dignity. That word resounded during the movie and the Q&A. That is what they are looking for.

The self-styled “wish list” Unison demanded of King’s on September 15th is as follows, and is, at first, second, and third glance, hardly the ransom of crazies holding the school hostage, but in actual fact, a list of rights:

  • Bringing the cleaners back in-house, ending outsourcing. For the cleaners, this means the same sick pay, holidays, maternity, paternity and pensions benefits as the rest of Kings’ staff
  • Honest and transparent allocation of working hours
  • Being paid the London Living Wage uplift from December each year (instead of April at present, the latest recommended implementation date)
  • Formal recognition of Unison

As things stand, the ball is in the university’s court, and if by November 30th they do not come to the cleaners with an offer that suits both parties, the cleaners will demo on December 1st. Want to help? Start by liking the campaign on Facebook and take part in what they have going on. Unison have a meeting with King’s today so you’d do well to watch the Facebook page for updates.

Read more of Roar’s coverage of the Justice for Cleaners Campaign, including the report of the first meeting this year, “When 90% of cleaning staff agree to go on strike, it’s a serious issue,” “A Sky Full of Swallows,” and “Why King’s Cleaning Staff are Calling for Strike Action”, or watch the video below.




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