Some of London’s most prominent institutions are bracing themselves for a summer of labour struggle, after the United Voices of the World trade union (UVW) announced that staff in seven different workplaces are set to strike in protest at poverty wages and unfair conditions.
Government departments, city skyscrapers, top universities and even Britain’s iconic Royal Parks are among the employers that could be hit by the forthcoming walk-outs, bringing disruption to every corner of the capital.
“I have a huge responsibility, keeping wards clean and protecting patients from infection,” said one UVW member who is employed as a cleaner at St Mary’s, a NHS hospital in Paddington. “But my salary is below the living wage, and really poor. I don’t get proper sick pay, or fair holidays. Our managers discriminate between staff members, keeping everyone unhappy. We are going on strike to change things for the better - for us, for everyone.”
The workers currently balloting for strike action include cleaners, baristas, security guards, chefs and till operators, and hail from dozens of different countries – ranging across the UK, Latin America, West Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Despite being employed by prestigious organisations in both the public and private sector, including the British government’s Ministry of Justice and 200 Grays Inn Road – home to the production company behind ITV and Channel 4 News – many of the workers receive less than the London Living Wage and are denied basic forms of security like occupational sick pay.
“Low-pay London has had enough of exploitation and is fighting back,” said Petros Elia, an organiser with UVW, the union behind the planned strikes. “There are incredible riches in this city, and yet the hard-working people who we all depend upon to keep it running are often living impossibly precarious lives, struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.”
“Most Londoners will be outraged that the workers who clean their toilets, sweep their office floors, prepare their meals and ensure their safety are not even paid the minimum amount needed to survive in the capital,” he added. “These are the silent, invisible individuals we all rely on – and they are refusing to stay silent or invisible any more.”
Other workplaces affected include the White Chapel building, which houses the UK government’s digital services operation and the London Museum of Photography, and two famous academic institutions: the University of Greenwich, on the banks of the River Thames, and St George’s, a medical school that forms part of the University of London. All UVW members at the relevant sites will be formally voting on strike action in the coming weeks.
In a major embarrassment for Buckingham Palace, among those walking out will be cleaners from London’s Royal Parks, responsible for some of Britain’s most famous green spaces including Hyde Park, St James’s Park, and Kensington Gardens. The parks are hereditary possessions of the Crown and managed by the UK government on behalf of the Queen, and yet workers who maintain the public facilities in them are paid only £8.21 per hour, substantially below the London Living Wage.
“I have worked at the Royal Parks for 24 years, but these poverty wages mean that, like many of my colleagues, I’m living a hand-to-mouth existence,” commented Genevive Boohene, a Ghana-born Royal Parks cleaner. “We are denied occupational sick pay, many of us do not receive our legal entitlement to holidays, and managers ignore our suffering and concerns. Now we are coming together to change things for ourselves.”
In common with most of the UVW members planning on strike action this summer, the Royal Parks cleaners are employed by an outsourcing company – in their case the French construction and facilities giant VINCI, which operates in more than a hundred countries and has been accused of a wide range of corruption scandals and labour abuses. Other outsourcing firms that will be targeted by the forthcoming actions include Sodexo, which made a net profit of nearly £600 million in 2018, OCS, and Baxterstorey.
“Many of the leading outsourcing companies that manage our members have a woeful reputation when it comes to respecting workers, including their legal right to join a union,” said Elia. “But it is the major organisations that contract these companies – including the UK government and the NHS – that are ultimately responsible for their workers’ pay and conditions. The days when powerful employers could hide behind outsourcing firms to excuse the exploitation of their staff are over: UVW is calling them out by name, and we won’t rest until these injustices are halted.”
UVW is an independent, members-led trade union that represents outsourced and low-paid workers in London and beyond. It has racked up a series of high-profile victories against prominent employers in recent years, including Topshop, Chanel, Sotheby’s, Harrods, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Two-thirds of those in poverty in Britain – a total of seven million people – have jobs, but are not paid enough to stay above the breadline. UVW has demanded that as a minimum, all workers should be paid the independently-calculated living wage, which is currently £10.55 in London and £9 in the rest of the UK, reflecting the amount needed to afford life’s basic necessities.
The workplaces where strike ballots of UVW members will take place in the coming weeks are as follows:
The Ministry of Justice
The Royal Parks
The University of Greenwich
St George’s, University of London
St Mary’s Hospital
The White Chapel Building
200 Gray’s Inn Road