The Justice for Cleaners (J4C) movement, which began in 2006, has been a decade long struggle against exploitation and outsourcing by a multinational business, and a fight against being treated as second class workers at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London. The campaign is moving to a critical juncture as a new contract to be in force for the next five years is currently under review. The demands are very basic – bring the cleaners in house so they are employed as all other staff at the university and are treated equally and fairly. Management at SOAS have continually sidestepped the issue and where the cleaners have forced management to listen to their concerns, it has only been done through tremendous pressure from the J4C movement itself. This is despite the overwhelming calls of the cleaners themselves, dozens of student societies, and a clear mandate of 98.4% of students and staff in a referendum on the issue. Even an external consultant has said the measure would be cost neutral. The movement has thus called for a national demo on 18 April which the SOAS Marxist society and Marxist Student Federation support wholeheartedly.
The Justice for Cleaners campaign began as a movement of working cleaners at the university who unionised in the face of being outsourced to ISS, a multinational outsourcing provider. The company sacked employees, some of whom were subsequently deported, and continually threatened staff who wished unionise and gain basic rights such as holiday pay and a living wage. Third party outsourcing companies like these have become ever more prevalent as capitalism’s crisis deepens, adding insecurity for workers, driving down standards in the form of pay, pensions, and other workers’ rights. This casualisation of labour is a product of the crisis of capitalism and the gross inequalities it creates. As Marxists, we must understand this as logical under capitalism because capitalists will always seek to cut costs as much as possible to increase profits. Because higher education is effectively being turned into a business, these attacks will continue unless struggles like J4C and the fight against casualisation measures are successful. We must play our part in fighting for that success. Management fear this unionised workforce and see them as a threat to the cuts and marketisation of the higher education system which they are seeking to impose. Having organised, and struggled for ten years, the Justice for Cleaners campaign has won hard-earned concessions including the London living wage, pensions and holiday pay. They have shown the importance of workers uniting in class solidarity.
Lenin Escudero, one of the key leaders of J4C movement has stated very clearly:
“Outsourcing companies are out there in the market just to get profit through the exploitation of the workers like us the SOAS cleaners. Where we stand and fight for our rights and stand in their way, these companies will do the impossible to finish us.”
He also goes onto state that the cleaners’ basic demands at “SOAS will change completely the image and reputation that it has at the moment”. SOAS is a school which dedicates itself to the study of the so called ‘developing world’ in Africa and Asia. It is an institution which continually produces academic literature, talks and conferences against the exploitation of migrant workers, and the exploitation of imperialism and colonialism, but which itself practices exploitation of migrant workers within its own institution. Such hypocrisy goes hand in hand with the growing gulf between universities as educational institutions, and universities as profit-seeking businesses.
Nevertheless the movement, led by the cleaners themselves, has had and continues to have high profile supporters including the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, who recently spoke at a Justice for Cleaners meeting in February. Over 220 academics have also signed an open letter in support of the cleaners’ demands. There is overwhelming support for the J4C campaign and the message to management must be that this campaign will continue until these legitimate and basic demands are met.
As Marxists, we understand this as a symptom of the wider crisis of capitalism which cannot provide sustainable employment, good working conditions or a decent wage to live off. It will logically try to undercut all of these hard-earned rights, and as the crisis of capitalism looks set to deepen, these measures will be implemented even more forcefully. Unless we support and fight back against the marketisation of higher education in all its forms, these cuts and the exploitation will only become deeper. Ultimately the only long-term solution that can guarantee decent living and working conditions is a socialist society which is motivated by meeting people’s needs rather than making profits for the rich. The pressures of the crisis of capitalism are being felt by more and more workers from the cleaners at SOAS to the junior doctors in the NHS. As the struggle continues and heads towards a critical juncture, SOAS Marxist society and the Marxist Student offers its full support to the national demo on 18 April, and we urge all who can to attend.
by Ravi Mistry, SOAS Marxist Society