What began on 12 June as a reminder of the 9 colleagues unfairly deported in 2009 in the middle of their working day, turned into a 12-day occupation of the university’s head offices.
Virginia Moreno Molina
Eight years later, a slice of history seemed to be repeating itself. Several workers were called to a meeting and received the news from Elior, the food services company, that the refectory of the main building would close permanently in August and that their jobs would be on the line.
This meant permanent employees would be moved into other services, but with their jobs at risk because of an excess in personal. On the other hand, those with zero-hour contracts would be immediately dismissed. On this unjust decision: “The occupation was an immediate response to this, taken in total solidarity with workers, and that has since received the full support of the Students’ Union, the UCU, and Unison”, explained the most recent communication from “SOAS Justice for Workers – End Outsourcing”, before breaking up the occupation.
For twelve days, several students occupied the offices, fed up with the slow ten-year fight for workers’ equality and dignity. Elior and SOAS insisted from the beginning that negotiations regarding closing the refectory were communicated to the trade union, Unison (the letter here).
Nevertheless, Unison reiterated in an email that this stance had no substance.
Unison have said that “your continuing attempts to imply that UNISON have been involved in any way with discussions regarding the detailed future of the Elior contract are totally unacceptable and must be withdrawn”, wrote Sandy Nicoll, SOAS UNISON Branch Secretary.
For its part, SOAS denied Elior’s statements on the closure of the refectory in an email. All in all, there have been contradictions between the company and university regarding the issue, which has led to misinformation and uncertainty amongst personnel. But the fight has not just been a war waged with emails and press releases; workers, students and different organisations have gone onto the streets day after day with music to lighten the mood and inspirational speeches, in order to be heard and make SOAS directors redden with shame.
Since the occupation began, events have been organised on a daily basis to make noise and bring attention to the issue: a strike was held by food services staff and last week there were daily protests where several speakers, including Antonia Bright from “Justice for any means necessary” and Adam Muuse of National Union of Students and Feyzi Ismail, a SOAS academic, participated to support the campaign and its demands.
From the beginning, these petitions were clear: “No cuts, no closures, no redundancies. We demand that SOAS keeps the Main Building Refectory open and commits to no redundancies for either full time staff or those on zero hours contracts in the refectory and catering/hospitality services.
SOAS Senior Management to produce a signed, public commitment to begin a negotiation process to bring all outsourced workers in house, with a clear beginning date.
SOAS Senior Management and Elior commit to an immediate equalisation of terms and conditions of Elior staff with Bouygues staff, including a fair and just alternative to zero-hours contracts.
SOAS Senior Management and Elior to produce written evidence of commitment to paying the catering staff currently owed up to £4,000 each in unpaid wages from London Living Wage Increases.
SOAS Senior Management must issue an apology to the workers for the stress caused by the shock announcement, and the disrespect shown by its timing”.
Twelve days later, an agreement was reached in which the workers emerged triumphant. According to the most recent communication since the occupation, before it was broken up:
“The refectory will remain open, and staff redundancies have been reversed.
All catering staff will be moved onto the better terms offered to other outsourced SOAS staff under the IFM contract, by 1st of August 2017.
Negotiations will begin with Elior to end all zero-hours contracts.
Negotiations with Unison will ensure that catering staff receive the unpaid London Living Wage increases in full”.
SOAS university has once again acknowledged how the lives of immigrants who pick up rubbish, cook, clean buildings and ensure students’ safety are repaid with deplorable conditions in places that promote equality.
Nevertheless, now, 12 June will not just be the day to commemorate 9 people who were unfairly deported, but also the day on which a new fight of the working class began and was won.
(Translated by Abaigh Wheatley – email: firstname.lastname@example.org)