'Between thorns and roses': how migrant workers beat outsourcing at SOAS

Lenin E, Consuelo MY, and Luis-Carlos V

Luke Stobart interviews SOAS Justice for Workers.

Important social victories have been achieved recently at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London). Junior lecturers (‘fractionals’) held a marking boycott to protest against the unpaid labour they are asked to perform, and SOAS staff and students fought against the victimisation of a well-respected Unison rep. The most dramatic conquest occurred during the summer of 2017. Migrant cleaners won being brought 'in house' after more than a decade of protest against low pay, abuse and harassment at the hands of unscrupulous subcontractors. The mainly Latin American cleaners even suffered a border-agency raid of a staff meeting leading to several colleagues being deported – an event the migrant workers understood was a response by employers and the university to shut down their growing movement against abusive working conditions. Here three leading members of the Justice for SOAS Workers organisation discuss for Historical Materialism the longer history of their campaign and draw from it strategic and political lessons. Lenin Escudero and Consuelo Moreno Yusti  (left and middle of the picture) are shop stewards for cleaning staff and Luis-Carlos Valencia (right of the picture) is a SOAS caterer and ex-cleaner. The interview was conducted on 18 August 2017 in Spanish and was translated by Luke Stobart. Luke's PhD research was on immigration politics and he is currently writing for Verso Books on Catalan independence and other challenges to the post-Franco regime.

LS: This is not the first time that SOAS cleaners have won important victories. Could you sum up what you have achieved since you began your struggle? How have working conditions been transformed? 

Lenin Escudero (LE): Our main demand when we began getting organised [in Unison] and campaigning in 2006 was to receive the months of overtime pay many of us were owed. But the problem was not just one of getting our money; we also campaigned for the London Living Wage – of around £7.20 – because we were paid at the [national] minimum wage of £5.20. We weren’t given work benefits such as sick pay and we had no union recognition. In the campaign’s first year we won the London Living Wage and union recognition; after striking in 2014 we won benefits such as pension rights and increased sick and holiday pay. However, we were still exploited by outsourced firms and still didn’t enjoy the same conditions as other university staff. The campaign continued.

To keep us happy management gave us equal sick pay and almost the same holiday pay as other SOAS workers but with worse pension rights. But by continuing pushing, in early August the university decided once and for all to bring us back in-house. We will have the same sick-pay and holiday and pension rights as other SOAS workers but most importantly we will have job security and we think we will be treated with more respect and dignity.

LS: What are cleaners’ working lives like?

Consuelo Moreno Yusti (CMY): Cleaning is a dignified and respectable job. It’s a profession like others. But most cleaners have to work long shifts because many workplaces don’t pay a decent wage. You earn what the law guarantees but this country is very expensive to live in. Some people work 15-18 hours a day and you don’t get to share much time with your family because you get home tired and have to get up early. People generally get up very early in the morning – around five. I get up at 2.30 because I start at SOAS at 3.45. Cleaning is also done at night-time and cleaners have other occupations during the day. Because of the long shifts people cannot study or do things they really like doing. That’s the most difficult part of being in the cleaning sector.

LS: What has been the most important aspect of your victory?

LE: It has been to show that change is possible when you make a commitment, believe in yourselves, and are organised, consistent and optimistic. We have shown that you can defeat outsourcing: something that for a long time people across the world thought was impossible. Outsourcing to private firms means exploitation, injustice and suppression of basic labour and even human rights. We have shown that ‘sí, se puede’ [‘yes we can’] is a reality and not just a promise.

CMY: The victory has been very important for the whole union movement and all people trying to organise to bring about change. For me the key to our campaign has been that students as well as workers have been involved. Also, that we the workers have provided all of the might to achieve our objectives. It is really essential for workers to exercise our right to be in a trade union but union strength comes from [the grassroots].

Another positive aspect has been its selflessness. We have been sharing our experiences with any group wishing to get organised. (We have always tried to “infect” others – such as academics and students – with our strength, willpower and encouragement). We do videos – really important – and we have spoken at different meetings in London and elsewhere to explain our campaign and so people realise that they can do what we have done.

LS: Have you spoken at places other than universities?

CMY: Yes, even in McDonalds – where they want to get organised. It is important for [these groups] that we inspire them. We try and get across that campaigning isn’t only about gaining better conditions but winning respect and our full dignity. And we want people to know that these changes have been won by a union force that we are proud to say is immigrant.

Luis-Carlos Valencia (LCV): An important achievement has been to change the mind-set of those running the university. Choosing to directly employ us implies breaking with neoliberal policy by which services are outsourced to firms that go against workers’ interests. This means a radical change in the way SOAS will be managed…

CMY:…I’m not so sure they have changed their mind. I think we forced them to adopt the changes. For many years they have made lots of lies and excuses, often leading to frustration. Whenever they did this, we pushed harder and saw ourselves more as workers. There came a point when their backs were against the wall. Their opposition [to us being brought in-house] was not financial but ideological [a commitment to private provision and prejudices towards poor migrants leading to us being excluded from being hired directly by the university]. We forced their hand. During the negotiations [on implementation] we will have to keep fighting. They are not so open- or broad-minded that they truly mean it when they say “how sweet. We brought our outsourced workers in-house”. I think the struggle will carry on but in a different way.

LE: I agree with [much of] what both are saying but I’d like to put things in [the new] context. It is partly true that SOAS management acted not voluntarily but because of our pressure. But will they change their approach? Yes, they have been forced to have a different attitude. They have had to admit they made a mistake in outsourcing. They are going to be forced to treat us with respect. They will have to change their attitude because their previous one did not work and they will not be able to come back at us. There has already been a change in attitude towards us. And this change will have an impact on other universities. Managers there will see what SOAS are doing.

SOAS Justice for Workers campaign celebrate their win
Photo by SOAS Justice for Workers and Counterfire

LS: Over the years what action have you taken to get where you are today?

CMY: We have held demos, strikes and ‘fiestas’ to involve sympathisers and the new intake of students each year. We fought against the suspension of Lenin and our branch secretary Sandy Nicholl. Our actions and events have always been planned through campaign meetings – a key thing. Of all the injustices we have suffered, trade-union persecution has affected us greatly and marked our campaign. Students have carried out spectacular actions against this…

LCV:…The awareness generated among SOAS students and workers towards migrant-worker issues was solid from the start. The activities Consuelo has mentioned allowed us [grassroots workers] to maintain hegemony over how the trade-union struggle was carried out. Unity and cooperation between the different SOAS unions – including the student’s union –has been fundamental.

CMY: Our campaign has continually featured on students’ courses because it has always had an educational side. For eleven years degree ceremonies students have taken a graduation photo with [our shield and our message of thanks to them]. They wanted to say goodbye to the campaign but also we wanted to say thanks. This was very pleasing because students were a central part of our campaign.

LE: Our struggle is often described as a workers’ struggle. And it has been – a fight by cleaners supported by students and others. But it went beyond being a workers fight to be one by the whole SOAS community. This was because everyone (students, the academic community and workers) understood that this was not about turning up to give the worker support but getting involved. Classes are given at SOAS on human rights – including workers’ rights – while these are not being practiced. We managed to get across the message that we didn’t simply want people to give solidarity but feel the injustice. We wanted people to work for things, create friendships, link arms and fight, and a key feature of the campaign was getting people to feel that we all were affected [by the way cleaners have been treated]. For me the most important of our many activities were our direct actions: occupations; graffitiing our demands to discredit the university; interrupting speeches at the university by public figures. Sometimes we could not join in these directly because of our contractual obligations, and the students protested for us.

LS: In many ways your campaigning experience has been wonderful; but it wasn't always easy. Stalin Bermúdez, a Unison shop steward who had helped your campaign at the beginning, was sacked. And some workmates were deported from the country after a police raid at SOAS...

LCV: Ken Loach’s film Bread and Roses [about the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles, and which was shown at the SOAS cleaners’ first ever public meeting] had a big effect on us. It showed us how cleaners can get organised and what can be done to win labour improvements. Next week we are going to speak in Sheffield on the trade-union struggle and have named the talk “between thorns and roses”. Not everything has been roses: we have been in very critical and tough situations.

LE: It has not all been rose-tinted. We knew when we started the campaign that we were starting a war. What normally happens in a war? You attack and they counter-attack. You do harm, they harm you. You kill, they kill you. Unfortunately as you go winning improvements, there will be reprisals. This is what happened. After winning a decent wage and union recognition in the first two years, we suffered reprisals that cost some colleagues their job and destroyed the lives of the nine that were deported.

But the most incredible thing is that these retaliations were planned between the university and the cleaning firm to scare us because we dared challenge them and won better conditions. They thought the deportations would stop us. But the effect produced was that we became stronger and more united. The community became more aware. We started growing as a group and became more optimistic. We were disturbed by the loss. We still are. Stalin had been suspended just before. He was one of the important people in our campaign: he took our case to the union and helped guide our campaign. They later came after me. They have taken steps towards suspending Consuelo. But after coming at us and trying to intimidate us we started thinking “we are going to achieve the impossible”. People told us it would be impossible to end the outsourcing. At times we could get down but we also gained confidence with each attack.

LCV: Immediately after the deportation – a low blow – the most delightful thing happened: the students decided to occupy the management offices for nearly two weeks to protest against this abuse of workers. Demos [and a strike] were held in support of Stalin but in that particular case [management] won (although he is a person that has followed our campaign in one way or another).

LS: In the most recent phase of your campaign you have demanded that all workers at SOAS be brought in-house, and catering staff have been part of the fight. Can you tell us more about this phase, and why you changed your campaign’s name [from Justice for Cleaners] to “Justice for Workers”?

LCV: The cleaners decided they needed to expand their campaign to include other exploited support staff. It was important that the cleaners recognised that other groups of workers suffered similar or even worse conditions and looked at how they could help and work with us. We tried doing what we needed to do together. In June SOAS managers announced they would close down the Elior refectory, leading to many redundancies. Again students protested – occupying management offices. They tried to convince management how unfair [the redundancies] were and SOAS chose not to close the refectory or allow anyone to be sacked. Indeed we even won rights that we did not have previously: sick pay and better holiday and pension entitlements.

CMY: When the campaign began, it was for cleaners and nobody else. Some people were indifferent to it – like with all campaigning. Others gave solidarity to the protests but saw the struggle as being the cleaners’ and didn’t get more involved. This situation changed a little after SOAS tried a trick on the cleaners. A new cleaning firm was brought in which took over the hiring of maintenance and security staff. We were then told that we could not be brought back in-house because they would not extend the measure “to van drivers or painters…”. We kept pressing them. They then manoeuvred [to avoid ending outsourcing] by saying the new company would hire cleaners, maintenance and security staff on almost the same conditions as in-house staff. This was supposed to be their boldest move but it turned out to be their biggest mistake because it brought staff together in the same package. As a result the campaign needed to be broader. [Crucially] the restaurant workers were left out [of the proposed improvements in conditions]. And straight away those on ‘zero-hours’ contracts were threatened with the sack. The whole campaign met – including the students. Within twenty minutes it decided to hold a radical action: an occupation – something that would hit the university hard. SOAS was targeting its most vulnerable workers: the group with the worst job conditions. Within two weeks the occupation achieved the impossible. The caterers joined the campaign against outsourcing, helping us to win it.

LS: Moving away from SOAS somewhat, sometimes union or left-wing leaders have talked about migrant labour being used by unscrupulous companies to weaken the conditions of the British working class. Such an idea can encourage sympathy for migrant workers but it can also fuel attempts to exclude such people from the workplace or even from entering the country. How would you react to those that argue migrant labour helps weaken labour conditions?

LCV: There is some truth to this: some unscrupulous firms breach labour laws and exploit migrants. The problem is when people start thinking that the immigrant is a burden for a country. I think it is the opposite. He or she helps to develop the country in many ways. History shows this. Unfortunately some people forget that in the past many people escaped wars [in Europe] by emigrating to the Americas, Asia and Africa. Regardless of why people are coming here now – whether fleeing poverty or war – we are discriminated against and treated as robbing jobs from native people. This idea is totally wrong.

Laws and protections can overcome migrant workers’ exploitation. Migrant workers are pushing hard to bring them about. Often they have led the most important labour victories because they know best the difficulties faced [in the workplace], and they know how much they are contributing to the country’s economy.

LE: I totally agree. Immigration is created politically as a problem. But we only talk about immigration as a problem when it involves people of colour. When North Americans and Europeans have [migrated] to Latin America they are helping produce and save [the region]. Immigration is a political problem, not an economic one at all, and it is particularly talked about when there are elections or when [governments] wish to cover up their own deficiencies. Immigrants contribute lots of things to society – like everyone else. We do decent work and even do the jobs that no-one else wants to do (even while we are told we are not needed here). We produce things. We keep cities alive. And that’s not all. We also create jobs and [markets] for jobs, and we are improving labour conditions through our struggles. Our fight at SOAS has not just improved the lives of Latin American immigrants. In catering we have African and Polish colleagues, and we have British colleagues here. We are creating opportunities. The immigration problem is created by politicians to turn the people against itself. They say migrants are to blame for the crisis. We are demonstrating, reinvesting, producing, growing, creating jobs, improving working conditions,… We have even been inspiring the British people to wake from many years of slumber. Thanks to our struggle many British comrades come and see us and feel proud [of what we have done]. Sometimes we have the difficulty of not being able to express ourselves well in the [English] language but there is no problem with our fighting spirit. This is a message that is having an impact (also in bakeries and the Ritzy Cinema where workers are also getting organised) and will have a domino effect in the future.

CMY: 90% of workers in the cleaning sector are migrants. We have achieved a victory for the whole sector. We are contributing quality work, paying taxes and our achievements also benefit English people. Cleaners [not just in SOAS] are helping develop union strength that is going to be very big and beneficial to Britain.

LCV: The language issue is always a barrier for us. I think it is crucial that we get the chance to learn English. [Limited English] hasn’t stopped us achieving wins but sometimes for the immigrant it is hard to overcome the language barrier. At SOAS we have won being provided with free English-language classes. This means we can integrate more easily. In the cleaning sector there are many people who in our own countries were skilled professionals but sometimes our level of English doesn’t allow us to go beyond cleaning.

LS: The British working class has not been used to winning many victories in recent years. Based on your experience what is the key for the union movement to win again?

CMY: A few notions: awareness raising, involvement, organisation, unity and perseverance. Also to launch any campaign it is essential that you know your rights. When you know, for example, that all workers have the right to join a union you can [start to] overcome your fear and you think about demanding rights and your place [in society]. And you grow in self-respect and dignity.

LE: I have learned that a union’s strength does not come from the people running it. It comes from workers, whom we have seen can win change. When workers gain in consciousness they can even win change when going against the existing union bureaucracies. They can also do it in the face of laws created to hold workers back. In SOAS we won changes even when we thought differently [about our struggle] than our union chiefs. They have a different trade-union mentality and expectations. We understand trade unionism as responding to today’s – not tomorrow’s – needs. We understand that change can be won now. The unions must start to understand that they can achieve changes and that the workers provide their strength. It is we that maintain those at the top [of these organisations] but change comes from the bottom.

Our campaign’s success has been due to our firmness. We have achieved a historic and legendary result. We need to look after it, defend it and cultivate it. We should not think of it as irreversible. We need to continue our work and being firm. In other words, ‘¡la lucha continua!’