Migrant cleaners, security guards and receptionists working for two major government departments are striking today, demanding pay that will allow them to “live with a little more dignity”.
Over 100 staff have staged a 48-hour walkout, the biggest by outsourced workers in UK government history, according to the organisers.
Around 3,000 workers employed by the Ministry of Justice are paid less than the London living wage (£10.55 per hour) and the long working hours mean the they miss out on around £5,000 per year.
Pruna Bhadhur Bishwakarna, a Nepalese ex-Gurkha who now works as a security guard at the MoJ for £9 an hour, told HuffPost UK: “We are just fighting for justice. I served 17 years in the British Gurkha army and have worked in the MoJ since 2009.
“Working conditions are not very good and it is a tough job. The salary is not enough for what we’re doing, that’s why I’ve opened my mouth, to get help from the public.”
Bishwakarna, like many of the security guards, works 72 hours a week over six days. He said he only just manages to make ends meet. “I have to feed my children, I have to pay my bills, I have to pay my rent. I get £9 an hour so I have to work all those hours,” he says.
Striking workers are also fighting for the same sick pay and holiday entitlement as civil servants.
They currently get one weeks’ less annual leave than civil servants and only statutory sick pay, which does not contribute to the first three days of illness and then £18.41 per day thereafter.
One security guard said: “Some of us have worked here for 10 years, all we’re asking for is a wage that allows us to make ends meet and live with a little more dignity.
“Is that too much to ask from the Ministry of so-called Justice?”
The strike is also affecting the department for business, energy and industrial strategy.
Cristina Albores, 41, who works at a receptionist at the Ministry of Justice, told HuffPost UK: “Every year in January the bills are increasing, the travel card, the energy bills, it’s all going up.
“I’m getting poorer and poorer every year.”
This is the second such strike by the workers – organised by the migrant worker led union, United Voices of the World – in the last six months.
Last August, a three-day walkout won cleaners a 12% pay rise bringing them up to the same £9 rate paid to security guards but still significantly below the London wage.
Shadow Justice Minister, Richard Burgon, told HuffPost UK that ministers should be “ashamed” that they are refusing to pay staff “enough to live on”.
“It underlines the contempt with which the Tories treat working people,” Burgon added. “Instead of hiding behind the cover of outsourcing, the Tories should lead by example and act to ensure that their staff are paid fairly.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said in a statement: “We are committed to lifting the salaries of the lowest paid members of staff and demonstrating that everyone is valued equally for their contribution, including our vital support staff.
“Of course we do not have unlimited resources – we have to work within our financial constraints – but we will continue to work with our suppliers to improve conditions in line with our values, and across government to pursue this important issue.
“Contingency plans will ensure our buildings in central London remain open.
“The independently advised National Living Wage, which we strictly enforce in all our contracts, has helped to deliver the fastest wage growth for the lowest paid in 20 years - and the most recent rise in April meant full time workers will earn an extra £600 a year.”