Outsourced staff at London universities are waging a struggle to be brought in-house, on decent pay. But profiteering bosses are resisting, with underhand attempts by management to intimidate workers. The unions must organise a united fightback.
For decades, cleaners and security staff at University College London (UCL) have been subjected to gross indignity and terrible working conditions.
Since 2019, however, they have been fighting back. That same year, they won an improvement to their sick pay and pensions, as well as to annual and parental leave entitlements.
But they didn’t win one crucial demand: for their jobs and services to be brought in-house by UCL.
Their campaign against outsourcing was later cut across by the pandemic, which only intensified the exploitation and discrimination these workers face.
Giant outsourcing firms, meanwhile, have made millions. Sodexo, for example, a French multinational, makes €578 million profit a year. At the same time, their employees face wage theft, precarious working hours, and redundancies.
Following the example of other outsourced workers – at London hospitals, and at universities such as Cambridge – these UCL workers are now set to ramp up their campaign, in order to win what they deserve.
A rally is taking place today (Thursday 26 May) at 5pm, joint with other outsourced workers in the IWGB union from London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This will see these workers unite and demand an end to outsourcing, discrimination, and for genuine pay rises.
? PROTEST THIS THURSDAY – 5pm @ MALET PLACE ?
Join @IWGBunion members at UCL and LHTSM fighting for an end to outsourcing, equality and fair pay.
✊ Come down, bring your friends, and join our fight for justice! pic.twitter.com/zRq38iVkjw
— IWGB Universities of London (@IWGBUoL) May 23, 2022
In October 2019, UCL management said that, by August 2021, ‘pay and core benefits’ for outsourced staff would match that of directly-employed workers.
But this is still not the case. In fact, given the cost-of-living crisis, workers’ pay and conditions appears to have worsened.
As a result, the struggle to insource these workers – at one of the country’s largest universities – reemerged last December, with 135 security workers signing a petition demanding to be brought in-house, on £15 per hour wages.
In response, in January 2022, UCL announced a consultation process, including both outsourced and directly-employed staff, to examine the question of bringing cleaners, security staff, and porters in-house.
According to the IWGB union, however, a survey conducted by the university as part of this process seems intended to scare outsourced workers, and to dissuade them from fighting to be insourced.
Further, UCL management also outrageously excluded the IWGB from this process – despite the union organising the majority of outsourced staff at the university.
Given these tactics, it is no surprise that, this month, over 150 cleaners also signed a petition with the same demands as the security workers – to be paid fairly and brought in-house.
The ground is laid for a showdown between the precarious (and largely BAME) workers on one side, and the university bosses and outsourcing giants on the other.
At the end of April, workers at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) – including porters, cleaners, post-room, and security staff – protested against being paid below the university’s lowest pay-grade.
This is a result of the workers being outsourced. The university, however, committed last year to bringing them in-house by August 2022, thanks to the IWGB’s organising efforts – winning them parity in terms and conditions.
But shockingly, the university has now said that they will not be brought onto the university’s pay scale, meaning that they will continue to be paid poverty rates amidst a cost-of-living catastrophe.
The majority-migrant workforce is also rightfully accusing the university of structural racism, backed up by a recent report.
And following the suspension of several cleaners for peacefully protesting, the university can add union-busting to its rap sheet.
As a result, the workers are joining forces with UCL workers – at the rally this Thursday – to demand dignity and respect, and to be brought in-house.
Unite and fight
Unfortunately, the workers at UCL are currently organised across separate unions, with some still members of Unison.
Making matters worse, Unison is the only union recognised by the outsourcing companies, as well as by UCL management. The IWGB, meanwhile, is not officially recognised.
This division of workers has been further deepened, meanwhile, by Unison plans to hold their own insourcing rally two days before the IWGB are set to hold theirs. This split in the workforce only benefits the bosses.
All campus unions must come together to resist this divide-and-rule strategy, and to defend the jobs, pay, and conditions of all workers. Our strength lies in unity.
This means uniting union members, alongside other university workers and students, in a joint struggle – to smash the dodgy practice of outsourcing, and strike a blow against the bosses.
The inspiring example of the London hospital workers – who have won their demand to be brought back in-house – shows that victory is possible. The lesson is clear: militancy pays.