A highly accredited business and a university which promotes the motto “for the betterment of society”. However, within those old walls working conditions seem to have remained in the past. What is the story and what abuses are hidden?
Virginia Moreno Molina
For several years, cleaners of the buildings at the London School of Economics have seen their rights decline.
One after another, companies that have passed through the university have ignored the needs of their employees by focusing on increasing their own profits. The university, according to the cleaners, has ignored what is happening in its buildings.
However, it seems that the current company, Noonan, has gone too far with its labour procedures. The workers have complained of an overload of work, harassment and homophobic abuse, among other situations.
Tired and frustrated, they made history on 15 March with a two-day strike on the university’s doorstep which was supported by students.
On three occasions via email, The Prisma has tried to gain information on the position of Noonan in light of such allegations, but had not received a response at the time of publishing this article.
Between two unions
These labour abuses began being reported recently. United Voices of the World (UVW) arrived last year as a new union and an alternative to existing organisations for labour rights.
“Before UVW arrived at LSE the cleaners were not unionised”, explains Petros Elia, secretary general and legal representative of the union.
According to the workers, Unison were not dealing with their repeated complaints and needs, leading to their decision to join UVW.
However, Unison, one of the largest unions in the country, was chosen by the university to negotiate according to a notice issued by Noonan shortly before the strike, which highlighted three im portant points: “UVW is not a member of the Trade Union Congress (TUC); UVW does not have any official standing at LSE or with Noonan; both Noonan and LSE recognise Unison as the official Trade Union.”
On three occasions via eAllmail, The Prisma wanted to clarify what Unison’s thoughts were on why the cleaners say that the union has never been interested in their requests; on the reports of verbal abuse of managers, on the unpaid hours and discrimination of sexual orientation, among other problems; on the actions that the union had taken to resolve the situation; and also on the accusations from the cleaners that Unison had been favouring the interests of Noonan rather than the workers themselves.
The email response regarding these aspects from Michael Etheridge, secretary of the union at LSE, is as follows (complete transcription):
“Unison members in Cleaning Services have been leading negotiations to secure improved terms from LSE and their employer, Noonan, since November 2016. So far the cleaners have won an early implementation of the London Living Wage and most recently, LSE and Noonan tabled an opening offer of 10 days occupational sick pay. The cleaners feel this offer is not acceptable, and have rejected it. Workers have the right to join any trade union. LSE and Noonan have chosen to negotiate with UNISON, a recognised trade union at LSE. Unison’s negotiations will continue until members are satisfied with the offer.”
In the last email sent to us 2 may, Michael Etheridge, Unison branch secretary at LSE, reaffirmed that: “Unison sought recognition from the Cleaners’ employer Noonan last year, and we have a Partnership Agreement which sets the terms of our Joint Negotiations.
At the most recent round of negotiations in April there was an improved offer made by LSE/Noonan including increased occupational sick pay, maternity leave, paternity leave and annual leave. These negotiations are led by cleaners in Unison. We are currently in consultation with our members on this offer”.
Petros recalls that, “when UVW arrived, Unison admitted that they had been (Unison) a disaster, they congratulated us and said that they would support us”.
Although, it seems the situation changed when there was a possibility of a win for the cleaners. Since then, the relationship between the two unions has been very tense.
“When the regional branch of Unison arrived, undemocratically and against the interests of the workers, they made their own demands for improvement. Without consultation and without dialogue”. Such are the words of Petros, who accuses them of being “the shield of the bosses. They say they are negotiating, but the truth is that they have neither the power nor the mandate to negotiate an agreement”, adding that “they act as if they are public relations for the university and the company”.
Some of the problems that UVW have faced – chosen by a large number of the cleaners – is recognition when it comes to negotiating. Noonan and the LSE have refused to negotiate with UVW. For Noonan, Unison is the only one with whom it will negotiate.
“What Noonan has with Unison is called a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the company and the union,” explains Petros. This means that the company has to consult with the union if it were to make any changes or cuts.
“They refuse to negotiate with us. It’s as if the company wants to decide which union the cleaners belong to,” he says.
Petros has expressed his concern about companies encouraging workers to join a certain union.
“This is called a ‘sweet agreement’; while it is a derogatory term, it is used to describe recognised agreements that are false,” he says, continuing that “they are good for unions at an institutional level because they can boast about securing a recognition agreement and for the company because it can legitimize the exclusion of the affected workers from any negotiation and leave everything in the hands of bureaucrats”.
And it seems that this is how the workers stayed for a while, as until then there were no strikes or legal action.
The truth is that several UVV claims are already underway in court “for the discrimination of race, sexual orientation, maternity, victimisation and harassment.”
Now, after the strike last March, it seems that the university has opened a dialogue with UVW, “however until now they have still refused to concede the cleaners demands without explanation or justification which has prompted the cleaners to take further strike action”, Petros explains.
“Noonan has nothing to do with this campaign for the rights of the cleaners. They have an important part in the responsibility for the abuses, but we are focusing our efforts on talking with LSE,” he says.
This is because it is the university that has to invest the money to improve the conditions.
So far, according to Petros, in the last talks with LSE “the university insisted that all future strikes be suspended”. However, until now they have made no offer. The cleaners have been clear that if no offer arrives they will begin demonstrating again in the following weeks.
What is Noonan?
In a report researched and published by UVW, data regarding the company and its profits were collected and exposed.
It is a company owned by Alchemy Partners, a private equity firm registered in Guernsey.
As the Irish Times notes: “Alchemy bought Noonan for €90 million in 2008 but it is now reportedly looking to sell the company this year for more than double that price – around €200 million”.
Following this, and according to the same report by UVW, “Noonan’s sale will rake in a tidy profit for Alchemy’s rich investors and will further enrich Noonan’s directors who have substantial share-holdings”.
“This is on top of the fact that in 2015 Noonan had record revenues of €303m, up €100m on the previous year”, according to what was published by Independent last year. Noonan is a company that offers cleaning services to organisations that want to save money and reduce their responsibilities by employing an external contractor.
Photos: Facebook & Pixabay – (Translated by Sydney Sims)