Each morning at University College London, thousands of students and lecturers flow through the Bloomsbury campus, past the imposing wrought iron of Malet Place or the Doric columns of the central quad. They arrive to a campus that is safe and clean, with hot breakfasts waiting in the refectory and the cafes.
There is little sign or recognition that, hours before, dressing in the dark and taking slow night buses into the centre of London, a small army of low-paid workers descended onto the campus to start cleaning from the crack of dawn. Many of them, such as the security staff working fifty or sixty hour weeks, haven’t gone home at all, and only now go home to rest.
And beneath the surface, a fundamental injustice is taking place. Like many universities in London and across the UK, UCL has chosen to outsource its staff. It has effectively privatised cleaning, catering and security staff, by taking them out of direct employment and into the hands of private, for-profit companies.
As a result, these workers can expect far worse conditions than directly employed staff. These workers, the majority of whom are – unlike many high-paid staff – BAME and from outside the UK, face a smaller pension, far fewer holiday days and worse provision for hard-won rights like enhanced overtime pay and carers’ leave. They can expect the bare legal minimum entitlement for sick leave, which means that for the first three days of illness, they’re on their own.
Unison is fighting to change this. At the end of last year, the union submitted a claim to UCL to bring cleaning, catering and security back in-house on the same terms as directly employed staff. Running a dynamic campaign with the support of UCL’s Labour Club and local councillors, our members are determined to reverse outsourcing and correct this injustice. Using social media and WhatsApp, campaigning at all hours, and translating leaflets into Spanish and Portuguese, workplace reps are working hard to make sure they contact every worker and make it clear to UCL they’re not going away.
They will succeed. Unison campaigns are already turning the tide against outsourcing in London. A stone’s throw away at SOAS, workers are already back in-house, and King’s College and Goldsmith’s are bringing their workers back in this year. It is becoming increasingly clear to universities that treating their workers this way is untenable.
The solidarity of the Labour movement plays a crucial role. At UCL, local activists and councillors have lined up in support of the campaign. UCL’s Labour Club in particular has shown a huge amount of support, and branches and CLPs across London are passing motions to call on UCL to bring their workers back in-house. UCL, like SOAS or King’s College before them, will not be an easy opponent. But, like them, they are no match for workers who are united and fighting for their rights. They deserve our support.