Globe, Struggles, Trade Unions, United Kingdom, Workers

Cleaners, without rights to get ill

They have few holidays, they don’t have a worthy pension and they are forced to work even when they are ill. This is a situation that hundreds of subcontracted workers suffer at the University of London.


Limpiadores, sin derecho 01Text and photos by Olga Briasco


Recently a roar of drums and whistles deafened the university premises. This was because tens of thousands of workers and supporters protested as their rights are neither respected nor recognised at Balfour Beatty, the company for which they work.

They demand the right to a pension, and sick and holiday pay like any other employee at the University. Sonia, one of the affected cleaners says “We are not asking for anything special, only rights that all workers should have anywhere in the world.”

Limpiadores, sin derecho 15One of the greatest concerns for the hundreds of employees at the company is sick pay.  “If an employee is ill and, they have to stay at home to rest, they are not paid for the days that they can’t come to work. They are preventing us from getting ill!”

“All employees have the right to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), like any other person who earns more than £107 per week,” claims the cleaner of Hughes Parry Hall.

As is explained, during the first three days, the SSP doesn’t give out any compensation and, it’s after the fourth consecutive day when they pay £85.85 a week.

Limpiadores, sin derecho 14She emphasises that “many of the workers go to work with a fever or in pain because of the lack of a worthy sick pay”.

The Bolivian woman tells of a colleague who had an ovary removed she had to go back to work before she was fully recovered.

This is something that Marta has also experienced. “When I got off a bus I fell and almost got run over. I was out for a month because I could barely move.” She didn’t have fair health cover and she needed an income, but she was “forced” to take holidays.

Of course, over the 20 days or so that she didn’t work, she was very worried that she would lose her job.

The truth is that the common practice among cleaners is to be forced to work even if they are ill. But “there are different rules for us and for University employees”, claims Marta, who has been working for the company for two and a half years.

Limpiadores, sin derecho 13For this reason, the campaign “3 Cosas” seeks to match the sickness policy for subcontracted workers with that of direct employees of the University of London’s central administration.

Not able to go home

There are also inequalities in the rules for holidays. “We only have 20 days holiday a year, when university employees have between 35 and 40” says Sonia.

She explains that many of the subcontracted workers have the right to 28 days paid holiday per year (as is required by law). Of these days, eight are bank holidays. She says that “many workers are obliged to take their own holidays on days that the University closes annually (6 days out of the year).”

Limpiadores, sin derecho 20In comparison, the direct employees of the University have the right to between 25 and 30 days paid holiday, as well as the eight bank holidays and closure days. “A total of up to 44 paid holidays a year,” she explains.

As well as not having the possibility to group together all their holidays, they can’t return to their home countries to see their family and friends. She points out that “Many of us are immigrants so if we want to go home, we have to buy a ticket that costs more than a thousand pounds.”

Sonia has gone two years without seeing her loved ones because “for two weeks it’s not worth spending the money on a ticket because two of those days are spent travelling.”  She emphasises that “with our salary (£8.55 an hour) we cannot afford great luxuries.”

Limpiadores, sin derecho 08Therefore, the “3 Cosas” campaign is calling for all outsourced workers to have the right to 30 days paid holiday, as well as bank holidays and days that the educational centre is closed.

Worry for the future

Marta nods and says “many of us have two jobs because we don’t earn enough to cover basic costs” and she claims that “it’s a lot of abuse for so much work and little pay.”

In her case, she gets up every day at 4.30am to catch the bus at 5am and go to her first job, where she works from 6:00 am to 8:00 am. She then goes to the University of London, where she stayed from 9.30 am to 12.30 pm. Then “I rest a bit and return to my third job (from 6:30pm to 8:30pm).”

Limpiadores, sin derecho 18This working day leaves her so exhausted that she spends the weekends “resting and not wanting to do anything.” A reality which is shared by many of her work colleagues.

These hours of work don’t count towards her future, since subcontracted workers don’t have a pension plan.  She explains that “we work a lot of hours and every day we are exposed to chemical products, which could result in future illnesses.”

“Our future is uncertain because we don’t have a pension plan. It’s not fair to work so many hours knowing that you are not investing in your old age.”

According to reports, university employees receive a contribution of 13%, “we have to settle for 1%, which is hardly a worthwhile”

To avoid this uncertainty, the campaign is calling for the capacity of all the employees of the University of London to buy into a good pension plan.  It argues that “We are arriving at an age where we worry about our future.”

The cleaners, the majority of which are Latin American, have united around the campaign “3 Cosas” to defend these three rights but also because they feel “underpaid, exploited and mistreated”.

Limpiadores, sin derecho 10Their demand focuses on the policy that is carried out at the University because they have “millions of pounds in reserves and a large budget (in 2012 it was £208,331,00). Furthermore, it is the university who employs the company BBW. Members of the company claim that “If the company provides a service under these conditions it is because the university asks for it”.

Due to this “lack of social values” many academics and students have joined the outsourced workers to show their outrage for “allowing them to work in these conditions”.

“A lot of the time we don’t say anything because we don’t know enough English to be able to complain” and she claims that “they take advantage of this situation.”

Limpiadores, sin derecho 04Sonia, who stood as a candidate for the role of vice president of Unison (Senate House Branch), knows what she’s talking about.  She claims “the votes were void because some people couldn’t vote and others, despite being members of the syndicate, were denied the vote.”

It’s for this reason that they have left this syndicate and now they are members of Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB).

Their voices are united and they will not stop until they get the rights “that belong to us”. They do this with enthusiasm and hope, because a year ago they did win their battle in their campaign for the “London living wage”.


(Translated by: Rachel Sharp)

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