“We are not the dirt – we clean”: United Voices of the World, a different kind of union

Occupying the Ministry of Justice, London

by Floyd Codlin

“We are not the dirt, we clean”, is the slogan from United Voices of the World (UVW,) a relatively new union that is making a big industrial splash in Britain. UVW is a members-led, campaigning trade union, which supports and empowers the most vulnerable groups of precarious, low-paid and predominantly migrant workers in the country. The union was founded in 2014, rapidly gaining media attention and popular support with a series of high-profile victories for workers serving Sothebys, Harrods and the London School of Economics. Their members work overwhelmingly in London’s ubiquitous outsourced industries, which include cleaning, portering, security, and retail, waiters and bar staff.

UVW has campaigned for all members to receive at least the London Living Wage (£10.20 per hour as of November 2017), contractual sick pay and other rights, dignified and safe conditions, and general respect. They’ve also challenged outsourcing itself, which creates two-tier workforces in order to slash wage bills and deny important rights. Most recently, from 7th-8th of August 2018, UVW cleaners went on strike at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for the London Living wage of £10.20 per hour and sick pay.

There are two things that go to make UVW so unusual; one is the fact that for such a small union, it can consistently punch above its weight, especially when you consider that many of its members who are from Latin America and Africa are part of the “precariat”. The second factor is that UVW have only to threaten to go on strike to see management cave into their demands. UVW picket lines tend to be a mixture of both politics and fun, with samba music mixed in with placards, people giving speeches on megaphones, interspersed with dancing.

They also organise active supporters.  For instance, during the strike by UVW members who are cleaners at the Ministry of Justice, supporters carried out an occupation.  A UVW press statement noted on August 8, “The Ministry of Justice was occupied by supporters of its own cleaning staff today, as part of their ongoing struggle to be paid the London Living Wage.

“Dozens of protesters streamed through the ministry’s entrance doors in Petty France, central London, blowing horns, blasting music and waving banners demanding fair pay, dignified employment, and parity in benefits with in-house staff.

“The cleaners, who are currently employed on behalf of the Ministry of Justice by outsourcing giant OCS and paid £7.83 per hour – significantly below the widely-recognised minimum pay rate to live a secure life in London – are on strike as part of a series of actions this week taken by low-paid cleaning staff across the capital organised by United Voices of the World (UVW).”

It has only been over the last few years that unions have made any serious attempt to organise and unionise precarious workers. Given the nature of precarious work, and the fact that many workers in that industry may have uncertain immigration status, no one can pretend that for a union rep, it will be an easy task. But it has to be said that the same was said in the past regarding women, PoC, etc. regarding recruiting them to being union members (https://www.uvwunion.org.uk)

Who are the “Precariat”? Some on the left say that the intense restructuring of not just the workplace, but also wages, terms and conditions, erosion of job security, has led to the rise of a distinct social class. Moreover, a class with separate conditions and interests from other workers, as Guy Standing in The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class argues.

Esme Choonera, in the 2011 October edition of Socialist Review disagrees, suggesting. “For socialists these are not just academic questions. They are central to the debate about whether the working class can still challenge the power of capitalism.

“So what is the reality? Is there a new ‘precariat’? How far has the world of work changed and how should socialists respond? There are both continuity and change in our current situation. First, it is worth stating that the majority of workers in Britain are still in full-time, permanent employment. Most of us still work in workplaces with more than 50 employees.”

She also notes that, “For example, the overall proportion of UK workers on temporary contracts – currently around 6.2 percent of the total workforce – has hardly changed in the last 18 years, and has actually fallen from the figure ten years ago, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).” (http://socialistreview.org.uk/362/there-precariat)

Guy Standing, (Professorial research associate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), writing for the World Economic Forum on 9 November 2016, said ‘Meet the precariat, the new global class fuelling the rise of populism’: “We are in the middle of a global transformation, the painful construction of a global market economy. In the initial period dominated by financiers and rent-seekers, a new global class has taken shape: the precariat.

“The transformation started in the 1980s, with a vision of open liberalized markets. Less noticeable was the strategy of dismantling institutions of social solidarity; they stood against the market. That weakened labour’s bargaining power. Crucially, the integration of China and other emerging economies into the world’s labour market added 2 billion workers to the global supply, most of them used to earning one-fiftieth of what OECD workers received. As productivity could rise faster in emerging market economies, there has since been downward pressure on wages in all OECD countries.”

He continued, “Below it in income terms, the precariat is growing. It is not an under-class; global capitalism wants a workforce with its core characteristics. It can be defined in three dimensions. First, it has distinctive relations of production. Commentators have emphasized the first aspect, some claiming that the precariat is not a new class because there has always been unstable labour. But while it is true that the precariat is being pressured to accept unstable labour, this is the least interesting feature.” (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/11/precariat-global-class-rise-of-populism)

That last sentence is astonishing when one considers that Sarah O’Connor, Employment Correspondent, , noted in the Financial Times (December 16 2016): “One in 10 workers in Britain is in the ‘precariat’, according to an attempt by trade unions to quantify the extent of insecure work at the bottom of the labour market.

“The TUC, the umbrella organisation for trade unions, used official labour market data to estimate that 3.2m people are in some form of insecure work, with fewer rights and protections than ‘traditional’ permanent jobs.” (https://www.ft.com/content/9705866e-c2e1-11e6-81c2-f57d90f6741a)

Looked at purely from the capitalist point of view, concerning the decentralising of labour, on June 2nd 2017, Neil Johnson in The rise of the precariat said, “Growing self-employment is a tangible phenomenon. According to a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) survey entitled Independent work: Choice, necessity and the gig economy from October 2016, 20-30% of the working age populations in the US and EU-15 are engaged in independent work; while 42% of executives surveyed in Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report expect to increase or significantly increase the use of contingent workers in the next three to five years.

“MGI defines three key features of its independent worker model: 1) a high degree of autonomy, flexibility and control; 2) payment by task, assignment or sales; and 3) short-term relationships between the worker and the customer. In the gig economy you can negotiate prices and timeframes, decline and accept work as you like, perform one off tasks for multiple clients or regular jobs for a few.” (https://economia.icaew.com/en/features/june-2017/the-rise-of-the-precariat)

Robin Simmons, Professor of Education, University of Huddersfield, writing for the ‘Conversation’ on October 2015, ‘Why being part of the precariat is harder for some than others’, suggests, “The precarious nature of the 21st century labour market is more serious for some than others. As Bourdieu highlighted in 1986, young people from different social class backgrounds have access to greater or lesser amounts of social, economic and cultural capital.

“Those from higher social classes are often able to mobilise these forms of capital in ways, which provide significant advantages over others. While economic capital can be used to pay course fees or limit student debt, it can also subsidise young people through the low-paid internships which are increasingly necessary in order to break into desirable occupations such as law, advertising, fashion or the media.

It can also allow young people to travel or take a “year out” to enrich their CV and build the cultural capital – attitudes, interests and dispositions – which employers often demand, especially in the most prestigious forms of employment. Cultural capital is, however, mainly associated with certain qualities accrued within the family, via the education system and other long-term forms of socialisation and cultural activity.

“It is evident in the different accents, dispositions, attitudes and expectations displayed by individuals from different backgrounds. Social capital is related to this and includes networks of family, friends and broader connections through which those from the higher social classes are able to secure interviews, negotiate work experience, and obtain employment. Sadly, those who lack the social economic and cultural capital to be able to ‘work’ the harsh realities of the 21st century labour market are most likely to enter the precariat – and stay there.” (https://theconversation.com/why-being-part-of-the-precariat-is-harder-for-some-than-others-47391)

‘Power in a Union’: To return to the UVW union, when they walked out in August at the Ministry of Justice and Kensington and Chelsea Council as part of taking unprecedented strike action in their fight for the London living wage and decent sick pay, these were part of a simultaneous action across five different sites for three days in what is being heralded as the first coordinated strike by the capital’s vast low-paid army of largely migrant cleaners.

UVW cleaners at Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea

RBKC quickly announced it would be ending its contract with outsourcing firm Amey. And when a Council meeting was disrupted by the union on August 7, councillors were forced to promise they would come down to the picket line and negotiate directly with cleaners in the open!

The cleaners are mostly Portuguese and Spanish-speaking Latin Americans from Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador, and Africans from Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe.

Striking Ministry of Justice worker Luis 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. It is because they don’t even listen to us or treat us with respect that we have to strike. It is for this that we call this place the Ministry of Injustice.”

The Ministry of Justice cleaners work under the OCS contract at three MoJ sites including the Headquarters at Petit France. The strike ballot and vote there saw a 100% turn out and a 100% vote in favour of industrial action. UVW members employed by Compass for Health Care America clean eight hospitals and care centres including The Shard, Guys Cancer Hospital and Harley Street Clinic. Health Care America is the biggest private healthcare company in the world.

Mercedes, a striking cleaner at Health Care America 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?”

UVW members clean Kensington and Chelsea Town Halls. These are the flagship public and administrative sites for the UK’s wealthiest and arguably most controversial local council – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, home to the preventable Grenfell Tower disaster, which killed 72 people on June 14th 2017. The cleaner’s there work for the global services giant Amey.

Time and time again they have shown up the big unions, so much so that Unite, earlier this year (in the aftermath of the Presidents Club scandal) set up a survey for those working in the hospitality sector (many of whom are women from Latin America and Africa) who’d been sexually harassed. https://response.questback.com/isa/qbv.dll/ShowQuest?QuestID=5070677&sid=QVo0ayCln3, https://www.womensgrid.org.uk/?p=5219 and http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/sexual-harassment-is-rife-in-hospitality-industry-according-to-preliminary-findings-of-unite-survey and http://unitelive.org/14506-2

The organisation, militancy and effectiveness of United Voices of the World means it would be a foolish company, council or CEO indeed who imagined that the members of the union were just “The Dirt that we clean”.

Support the work of UVW – see here.