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London cleaners to take unprecedented strike action

06 August 2018

Cleaners working at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are taking unprecedented strike action this week in their fight to be given the London living wage and decent sick pay.

The Guardian reports that on Tuesday 7th August, cleaners will walk out across five different sites for three days. It is being called the first coordinated strike by London's low-paid workforce of predominately migrant cleaners.

The workers hope the strike will pile pressure on the public institutions they claim are refusing to take responsibility for low wages paid to outsourced cleaning staff.

Luis, a cleaner at the Ministry of Justice, said: "Even though we are paid minimum wage, the company still tries to make us work harder and harder, doing more tasks and cleaning more and the company doesn’t send anyone to replace the workers who are sick or absent." 

The strikers are asking for the £10.20 an hour London living wage, which is based on the cost of living in the capital. 

By comparison the National Minimum Wage, confusingly re-labelled the National Living Wage by the Conservative Government in 2016, is £7.83p/h.

The strikers are also hoping to raise the issue of sick pay, which they do not receive for the first three days of absence and which thereafter is statutory sick pay of £18 a day. Finally, they want equality between subcontracted and directly employed staff in terms of holiday entitlements, hours and overtime pay.

Although the cleaners are employed by the facilities company OCS Group, they claim the MoJ is ultimately responsible for their pay.

Workers cleaning Kensington and Chelsea town hall, who are employed by Amey, a private contractor, have the same complaints. They are also paid below the London living wage and are denied sick pay for the first three days.

Mauricio, who works as a cleaner at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, said: "It is really hard to survive in London, you have to think about what you can and can’t buy, which bill to pay, it’s very difficult. I wanted to live near my work but it is impossible for me. I live in a room in an apartment with another family, that is how it is here."

As well as this week's strike, cleaners employed by Compass at eight private hospitals and medical centres, run by the health firm Health Care America (HCA)UK, are set to join further coordinated action at the end of August. The HCA UK cleaners are also paid below the London living wage but are said to have more specific complaints.

Mercedes, a cleaner at HCA, said: "We are not just demanding fair pay, we need basic vaccinations, including Hepatitis B and Tetanus, which are being denied to us even though we regularly come in direct contact with bodily fluids including blood. These are luxury hospitals, why can’t we get what we need?"

The strike has been organised by the United Voices of the World union, an independent union formed in 2014. Its founder, Petros Elia, said the MoJ, Kensington and Chelsea council and HCA UK had so far refused to talk to him directly about their demands. “They are taking no responsibility for what happens in their buildings,” he said.

The UVW has already won the living wage, sick pay and holiday pay for cleaners all over London, including at the Daily Mail’s offices, Sotheby’s and the London School of Economics. This will be the first time however that the union has run three simultaneous strikes.

Speaking to The Guardian, the MoJ said: “The MoJ cleaners are valued colleagues. The national living wage has helped deliver the fastest wage growth for the lowest paid in 20 years, and the most recent rise in April meant fulltime workers will earn an extra £600 a year. We strictly enforce the living wage in all our contracts but specific pay and terms are for employers to agree directly with their employees.”

The newspaper also spoke to Kensington and Chelsea Council and Amey.

The council spokesperson said: “These cleaners are employed by Amey and we don’t control what Amey pays their staff, though we do expect them to pay their staff appropriately.”

The Amey spokesperson added: “Our contract with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea predates the voluntary London living wage, so Amey is paid on the basis of the National Minimum Wage.”

OCS Group and HCA UK declined to comment, The Guardian said.