A building at UCL

Hundreds of cleaners, security staff, and others at University College London (UCL) signed a letter this month demanding an end to outsourcing on campus. Workers say subcontractors have abused them during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the university has ignored their complaints.

UCL outsources most of its campus services, including cleaning and security. Those campaigning with the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) trade union say that UCL shifts its responsibility for staff onto contractors.

“I have been a security guard for almost 5 years now”, says Martin Johnson Wogido. Wogido is a security guard at UCL and is chair of the IWGB Universities of London branch.

“We are launching this campaign to end outsourcing, to end the use of middleman subcontractors who profit off the backs of key workers such as myself. It is clear UCL does not want to engage with outsourced staff and our union, the IWGB, as they attempt to intimidate us and scare us away from fighting for in-housing.”

After campaigning since 2019, workers won annual and parental leave in 2020. But UCL did not end contracts and bring staff in-house. IWGB was then forced to put the campaign on hold due to the pandemic.

This original phase of the campaign included the famous ‘Boycott Senate House’ movement.

In their letter, which marked the relaunch of the campaign, staff demanded in-housing with fair pay, and a £15 minimum wage. For many, the belief that they’d be better treated under UCL is what the fight is about.

“I came to London in 2011, and have worked at UCL since 2012 to support my teenage daughter”, said Maria, a cleaner. (Not her real name.)

“I have worked incredibly hard, once breaking my hip on the job, and have continued to work excessive hours to get by, terrified to complain to management for fear they will punish me and take away shifts I need to survive.”

Maria said she had worked under four different companies, and suffered abusive managers who play favourites.

IWGB said that cleaning contractor Sodexo made staff redundant during the pandemic. It claims Bidvest Noonan, a security contractor, failed to handle payroll properly. They said this meant staff had been illegally underpaid for six months.

Trade unionists have also accused UCL of institutional racism. The majority of security and cleaning staff at UCL are from BAME or migrant backgrounds, like at other London universities. Vice-president of IWGB and former cleaner, Maritiza Castillo Calle, says the situation is a “clear case of institutional racism”.

“We have seen this tactic of outsourcing used many times before as a way for companies to wash their hands of responsibility for their most vulnerable employees. They hide behind subcontractors which mistreat and mismanage workers, all the while claiming that this is in the interest of efficiency and pragmatism.”

IWGB has campaigned to end subcontracts before, including at Goldsmiths, University of London. Workers launched their campaign 4th May; they plan a protest at UCL on 26th May.

A spokesperson for Sodexo said: “We can confirm we did not make any cleaners from our team at UCL redundant. Any members of the cleaning team who did not continue working at UCL were included in our furlough scheme, including those on casual agreements.”

UCL and Bidvest Noonan did not respond to a request for comment.

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Image credit: Lord Harris – Creative Commons