Student Activists Protest Over Worker Rights In London

LONDON, United Kingdom — Cleaning staff from the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, a department of the University of London, went on ...

Mar 15, 2014

LONDON, United Kingdom — Cleaning staff from the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, a department of the University of London, went on strike on March 4 and 5 demanding for better working conditions. For the duration of the strike, termed the Justice for Cleaners Strike, students and staff banded together in front of the SOAS building to form a picket line calling attention to the cleaners’ demands.
The demonstrations had a distinctly cheerful and almost carnival-like atmosphere with live music, dancing and a bake sale alongside the waving picket signs and protest banners. The upbeat mood, however, did not undermine the more serious undertones. The strike, organized by UNISON, the SOAS workers union, called for SOAS cleaners to be employed directly by the university rather than being contracted from an outside source.
If the cleaners were employed by the university, they would be given the same contractual terms as other SOAS employees, including a pension scheme, holiday allocations and sick pay.
"Our members shouldn't be unable to pay their rent if they happen to be ill," Ruth Levin, the UNISON organizer, told The Independent.
“SOAS as an institution claims to deal with pressing issues such as democracy, human rights and poverty,” Levin said. “Yet, here we have a situation where it is failing to deal with a pressing issue that is sitting on its doorstep.”
Many university students were actively involved in the protests and supportive of the cleaners’ demands. Abi DalbyBowler, a third-year SOAS student, was one of the leading student organizers of the protests. She explained the particular influence that students can have over administrative decisions.
“The cleaners don’t have a lot of bargaining power with the SOAS management … they don’t really care if the cleaners email them and complain, but if students start complaining, it’s more powerful,” said DalbyBowler.
As an example, she described how a building’s heating was turned off during the Christmas holidays, even though the cleaners had to continue coming in to work. Some days, temperatures in the buildings fell to less than 10 degrees, which is below the minimum of health and safety standards.
“When the cleaners had emailed the management, they were ignored,” said DalbyBowler. “But as soon as the students emailed, they got replies within half an hour. The difference in treatment was just disgusting … [Management] didn’t care; they didn’t respect [the cleaners] in a time when they really needed it. And it’s just another example of how they are treated with such a lack of dignity.”
Although this was the first time workers from the SOAS department have gone on strike, it is part of a wider, ongoing battle with UoL workers and students on one end and administration on the other. Last Dec. 4 and 5, a well-attended demonstration was held concerning similar issues of low pay and unacceptable working conditions for outsourced staff.
The protests culminated in the arrest of 41 students, including the Editor-in-Chief and the Features Editor of the UoL newspaper, London Student, both of whom were covering the protests. The student journalists spent seven hours in jail and had their cameras and phones confiscated for several weeks, despite showing National Union of Journalists identification cards, reported the London Student. The pair were cleared of legal wrong-doing three months later, on March 5. After the December protests, the university introduced an injunction to ban student protests on UoL property until June 2014. However, the university agreed not to break up peaceful protests.
In late January, students and workers again took to the streets to protest the working conditions of UoL’s outsourced staff. This time, protesters made their way across the city to Westminster, where MPs John McDonnel, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn expressed their support for the campaign.
More recently, on Feb. 28, students occupied the UoL Vice-Chancellor’s office. They called for his resignation, objecting to police presence on campus and his heavy-handedness in dealing with student protests. The occupation took place directly following the release of a verdict concerning the arrest of a student protester.
What began as demonstrations for workers’ rights has quickly evolved into a confrontation over student activism, police presence and the university’s responses to the growing crisis. However, the effectiveness of the most recent SOAS strikes remains to be seen; the cleaning staff returned to work on March 6 and are awaiting the results of negotiations between UNISON and the university management.
“The campaign is not going to stop until the [cleaners’] demands are answered,” concluded DalbyBowler. “I can’t see an economic, moral or logistical reason that SOAS management can continue like this … These are human beings; they are fighting essentially for recognition and equal rights.”
Clare Hennig is editor-at-large. Email her at
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