“Biggest ever” strike gets underway at UCL

© Pietro Sambuy

Hundreds of cleaners, porters and security officers are today on strike at University College London (UCL), in what is expected to be the biggest-ever strike of outsourced workers in UK higher education history.

The IWGB balloted almost 300 workers over their terms and conditions, as part of the union’s campaign to end outsourcing and zero hours contracts at UCL. 98% of the cleaners and porters that voted in the ballot, and 98.75% of the security officers that voted backed strike action.

The strike action will significantly impact several UCL buildings. The university has suggested staff work from home to avoid disruption and some events, including the Orwell Memorial Lecture, have been cancelled or postponed.

Following the launch of the IWGB’s campaign in October, the university has made vague statements regarding an improvement of terms and conditions for outsourced workers, without offering any guarantees nor a clear timeline. The overwhelming vote in support of industrial action by the IWGB’s members shows the extent to which the university’s offer has fallen short of workers’ demands for equality.

Outsourced workers receive worse sick pay, pension, holiday pay, and parental leave than their in-house colleagues. They are also more likely to suffer from bullying and discrimination than directly employed workers.

IWGB University of London branch chair and former UCL cleaner Maritza Castillo Calle said:  “For decades, UCL has treated its majority migrant and BAME outsourced workers like second class citizens, condemning them to a system of bullying and discrimination. We gave UCL several opportunities to avoid this industrial action. But instead of doing the right thing by agreeing to treat these workers as equals, the university continues to drag its feet and only offer half measures. If the university continues to bury its head in the sand, we will not hesitate to take additional industrial action until we are heard.”

The strike ballot specifically demands that the facilities management companies that manage the security and cleaning contracts, Axis and Sodexo, give the outsourced workers the same terms and conditions as UCL’s direct employees. The IWGB has launched an appeal to raise money for the strike fund, which can be found here.

While direct employees of UCL can receive up to 26 weeks of pay when they are off sick, outsourced workers are on the statutory minimum. This means they receive no pay on the first three days they are off sick, after which they are entitled to just £94.25 a week. This forces many to work while sick or injured, rather than risk losing a day’s pay. (See comparisons of other conditions in notes below)

Over the last year the IWGB has also documented a number of severe management failures and discriminatory practices by the outsourcing companies. The IWGB brought complaints on behalf of 30 Axis security officers that were owed over £15,000, when the company failed to properly pay their holiday pay over a period of three months, between December and February. Following these formal complaints by the University of London branch secretary, the money was paid, but there have been other instances of non-payment of holiday pay since.

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