Government cleaners and security staff strike before landmark labour case

Damien Gayle
Members of the IWGB union demonstrating in Parliament Square on Tuesday. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Staff from government departments have walked out in the latest in a series of strikes over pay, before a landmark employment rights case at the high court.

Hundreds of facilities workers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Ministry of Justice, who earn as little as £7.83 an hour, joined cleaners from the University of London on Tuesday in a day-long strike and day of action against outsourcing, which they say exposes them to insecurity and discrimination.

Cleaners, security, catering staff and others represented by the PCS union are demanding the living wage, equal terms and conditions and an end to outsourcing.

Cleaners and security officers from the MoJ, organised by the grassroots United Voices of the World (UVW) union, are demanding the living wage, and cleaners from the University of London, whose activism together under the banner of the Independent Workers of Great Britain union (IWGB) has already won them better pay and conditions, are demanding equal terms and conditions with directly employed staff.

The strike is timed to coincide with a ruling on a landmark case on collective bargaining that could empower the UK’s 3.3 million outsourced workers to negotiate directly with their de-facto employers – the companies buying the outsourced services – as well as their direct employers.

Outsourced London security guards, organised by the IWGB, are seeking a judicial review of a decision by the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) not to hear an application for trade union recognition for the purposes of collective bargaining with the University of London.

If the application is successful it would introduce the concept of a joint employer to UK law. This concept has existed in the United States for decades.

That could have implications for workers at BEIS, who are taking their second day of strike action this year over low pay. They have been told by their employers, the outsourcing firms Aramark and Engie, that the department has insisted they be paid no more than the average for the private sector in London, which works out to £8.49.

Their union, the PCS, said a new company lined up to take over the security contract at BEIS had confirmed that the pay rate was set by the department and could not be altered in line with the London living wage.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said his workers had been betrayed by a government department “more interested in keeping costs down than paying staff who do vital work a proper London living wage”.

One of the catering workers from BEIS who joined the march said ministers should be ashamed at their offer to solve the dispute. “They should consider and think about the staff, not just the benefits and services they get,” she said. “Why are workers getting peanuts when [Aramark] are getting the whole cake?”

Marching, dancing, drumming and singing along to music from a portable soundsystem, despite having no permit from police, the protesters walked through central London, taking in the Royal Courts of Justice, Parliament Square, the BEIS headquarters on Victoria Street and the MoJ on Petty France.

Speaking in front of a statue of Winston Churchill opposite the Houses of Parliament, Margarita Cunalata, an IWGB representative who works at University of London but is employed by Cordant, called for her and colleagues to be brought in-house.

“We need to stop this discrimination between those who count and those who don’t count,” she said through an interpreter. “We have the right to earn money, and to the profits that are taken from us. We have the right to a better life.”

Strikers also heard from Susana Benavides, a member of UVW who last week won £75,000 compensation from Topshop after an employment tribunal ruled she had been targeted for union organising.

She said: “We are here to show the people in parliament that we are human beings and we are not going to go until we get dignity and respect at work.”