Members of La Retraite staff on strike
La Retraite strike members. Image credit via United Voices of the World.

From the 16th March, a group of outsourced cleaning staff at La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School in South London will take strike action for 40 days and 40 nights. The cleaners are demanding equality in working conditions with the school’s teachers as well as trade union recognition and repayment of what their union says are unlawfully withheld wages.

The cleaners, all of whom are Latin American migrants, are outsourced to a private contracting firm named Ecocleen. The firm deducted an entire month’s wages from some cleaners when they refused to work until the firm carried out a risk assessment and addressed safety concerns from the staff about the pandemic. The trade union United Voices of the World (UVW), described the deductions as a “cruel, vindictive & unlawful punishment,” and is in the process of taking legal action against Ecocleen to recover the lost wages.

As a result of being on different terms to those directly employed by La Retraite, the cleaning staff only receive Statutory Sick Pay, unlike the staff employed directly by La Retraite who receive full sick pay. A cleaner at La Retraite named Roberto, stated:

“When we get ill – either with COVID-19 or something else – we simply can’t afford to take sick leave. If we do, we’ll lose our wages, and as we already live on the breadline every penny we lose risks leaving us unable to buy food or pay for rent. And what’s worse is that the La Retraite knows this. Which is why teachers get full pay sick pay. If teachers get it then why can’t cleaners?”

Discussing this disparity in terms further, Petros Elia, a UVW organiser working in cooperation with the striking cleaners said:

“As all the cleaners are BAME and/or migrant workers, whilst the majority of La Retraite staff are White, this double standard in pay and terms and conditions, which has no justification other than cost, breaches the Equality Act and La Retraite’s Public Sector Equality Duty. It’s institutional racism in our view.”

The strike will be the first in La Retraite’s 140-year history and UVW has said that they will work with the La Retraite cleaners for as long as it takes to ensure that they are treated fairly. They are also undergoing an urgent application for an injunction against Ecocleen. Petros continued:

“This type of injustice may be commonplace in private, profit hungry companies but to see it in a Catholic School which has made an explicit commitment live by “Gospel values and the teachings of the church” including “treating everyone equally and with justice” shows that when it comes to the cleaners these are mere pious platitudes.”

La Retraite has been contacted for comment.