FRFI 209 June / July 2009

Support sacked cleaners! 

Migrant workers, the majority of Latin American origin, employed to clean the high-powered offices of the City of London, have been organising successfully over the past year for union recognition and against poverty wages. But the cleaning companies have hit back, attempting to introduce longer and more unsociable shifts and sacking workers when they refuse to change their working hours. In particular, the activists leading these campaigns have been victimised. In 2008, five cleaners employed by Mitie Cleaning and Support Services at the Willis Building near Liverpool Street were sacked after leading a successful campaign for the London Living Wage of £7.20 an hour. They have been staging weekly protests outside the Willis Building with the support of Latin American groups, anarchist and communist activists and groups of cleaners from similar struggles.

The case of Alberto Durango, a Unite branch committee member, who was instrumental in a successful campaign to force his cleaning employers Lan­caster to pay its workers a living wage and to prevent changes to their working hours, has many parallels with the Mitie workers. In his case, the company retaliated by summoning him to a meeting where he was confronted by police and immigration officials, arrested for ‘using a false name’ (which the company had known about for the ten years he worked for them) and held in a police cell while his home was searched. He was subsequently suspended from his job. And, like the Mitie workers, the cleaners at Lancaster found themselves abandoned by their union, Unite. Alberto spoke to FRFI after the regular Friday picket of the Willis building.

‘I got involved in the Justice for Cleaners movement, organised by Unite. Unfortunately, although there were 30 cleaners at my workplace, Schroders, asking them to help us organise there for a living wage, Unite never visited us. So we mobilised cleaners to go to the union headquarters in Holborn to ask them why they don’t want us to fight. One of the main organisers took us aside and recommended that we wear masks for our demonstrations. We said ‘Why? We are not criminals. We just want what is fair for us’. We tried to push more and they promised three demonstrations and then each time cancelled them on spurious grounds: the last time, they said the company had called for negotiations so we should call it off. And we said ‘what have they negotiated?’ and the organiser told us that we had the right to go to a consultation meeting! At the time I didn’t understand why they did this, but I’ve been learning more as I’ve become involved in different struggles and I know now the union organisers just want to get the salaries and the commodities and don’t want to fight; they are building up money like big business, like capitalism. They don’t represent us. So we decided to organise our own protest.

The company responded by trying to change our working hours, so we decided to fight. We wrote to the union, to Schroders and to the cleaning company, fighting in three ways. They were trying to reduce the number of workers from 30 to nine in a clear attack on union organisation in our workplace. In October 2008 we all went out, 30 cleaners and our families, with support from many Latin Ameri­can solidarity groups and anti-deportation campaigns. It was a successful demonstration. They called for negotiations and after some intimidation and threats from the company, we won the increase and they didn’t change the time. But after that, as is inevitable when you fight for your rights, the com­pany retaliated by attacking the organisers. It was the same story with Mitie.

We have been demonstrating outside Willis for three months. We wish the union would support us. All the organisations involved in this campaign wrote to the secretary of Unite and they responded by saying that they are a fighting union and we were in the wrong. We think we are paying the union to defend us and the union should believe the workers and not the companies. We are getting a lot of solidarity. Last week I was in a forum with the Visteon workers and they were shocked when they heard our story and they had the same situation with the union – the same organiser. The Visteon workers are supporting us. That is very important, because all the workers, we need to support each other, because the bosses are powerful, they have got money and the media and the police in their favour, so we need to organise amongst ourselves to defend ourselves.

Support the sacked Mitie cleaners: demonstrate outside the Willis Building, Lime Street, London EC3, 1-2pm every Friday.

Sign the online petition demanding Unite support sacked cleaners at: www.petitiononline.com/jobs4all/petition.html

 

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