NEWS
07/08/2018 17:05 BST | Updated 07/08/2018 17:05 BST

'We're Not Living, Just Surviving' – Government Cleaners Strike Over Low Pay

Workers are fighting to receive the London Living Wage.

Kathryn Snowdon/HuffPost UK
Fatima Djalo works at the Ministry of Justice.

Dozens of cleaners working at a government department and council headquarters are on strike over low pay and unfair working conditions. 

The three-day walk-out by cleaning staff at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) began on Tuesday in a bid to pile pressure on public institutions to raise wages and improve sick pay for outsourced workers.

The United Voices of the World (UVW) union is leading the action and says many of its members are struggling to make ends meet.

They will be joined on the picket line at the end of the month by workers from Compass for Health Care America (HCA) – the biggest healthcare company worldwide – whose cleaners work at eight hospitals and care centres including The Shard, Guy’s Cancer Centre and Harley Street Clinic.

Crowds gathered outside the MoJ offices in central London on Tuesday, waving colourful banners and chanting.

MoJ staff employed through contracting company OCS were among those striking. Fatima Djalo, 54, has worked at the department for nine years. 

Through an interpreter, she told HuffPost UK: “The salary hasn’t really gone up and the living costs have gone up. Every time we ask for a raise and why the salary hasn’t gone up, we are told by the companies that the contract is from the MoJ and they can’t really do anything about it.

“No one will listen to us and pay us the living wage.”

Djalo, originally from Guinea-Bissau, lives in a five bedroom house with 11 other people. She pays £450 for her room - nearly half of the £1,000 wage she takes home every month. She has to pay for food, travel and sends money to her sister and nephew in Portugal.

“I’m not living, I’m surviving, I’m just getting by,” she said.

“How are we meant to live on £1,000? It’s the Ministry of Justice and you see every day that they are buying new furniture and they’re buying new computers. It’s not just, it’s not fair.” 

The MoJ said cleaners are “valued colleagues”, adding: “We strictly enforce the living wage in all our contracts but specific pay and terms are for employers to agree directly with their employees.”

OCS has been contacted for comment.

UVW says RBKC workers on strike this week do not currently have an occupational sick pay scheme.

This means workers rely solely on statutory sick pay, which is unpaid for the first three days of illness.

After that point workers get £18 a day – meaning staff are more inclined to come into work when sick in order to meet their living costs, according to UVW.

A common grievance among union members is that subcontracted staff and those directly employed by the body they work for are not entitled to the same benefits such as holiday and overtime pay. 

UVW says that a “two-tier workforce leads to undercutting, a race to the bottom and exploitation”.

Striking staff are also calling for workers to receive a London Living Wage of £10.20 per hour, rather than George Osborne’s rebranded National Living Wage of £7.83, introduced by the then-Chancellor in 2016. 

Cleaners who work at RBKC, but are contracted by Canadian company Amey, joined a picket line outside the Kensington Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

The concourse immediately outside the council offices, just off High Street Kensington, was filled with a cheering crowd who chanted, sang songs and danced.

Kathryn Snowdon/HuffPost UK
Willan Arias works as a cleaner in RBKC.

Willan Arias, originally from Ecuador, works as a cleaner in Chelsea Town Hall and is one of dozens who want better pay and conditions.

He told HuffPost UK that he earns minimum wage and works up to 14 hours a day from Monday to Saturday.

“It is hard for me. I know I am young, I am 29 years old, but it’s hard. At the moment I don’t have children but imagine if I did have children,” he said.

“I pay £600 for my rent, which is for a one bedroom in flat, and after that I have to pay for my transport, my food, bills. Also I have got my parents and my sister in my home country.

“I try to support them and send a little bit of money for support but after that I’ve got £100 and living in London.”

He added: “We are working in RBKC, which is one of the richest boroughs in London. Some of my colleagues have children and I don’t know how they live.”

Mirna Holguin was also born in Ecuador. The 44-year-old worked as a teaching assistant before moving to the UK, but because she did not complete her studies she is now working as a cleaner.

Kathryn Snowdon/HuffPost UK
Mirna Holguin, a cleaner in RBKC, works 11 hours a day to cover the rent.

The mother-of-two lives in a two bedroom flat, which costs £1,600 a month.

On top of her eight-hour days in RBKC, she works three extra hours a day with another company in order to make ends meet.

“We earn very little, but we work a lot,” she said. “Both the janitors and cleaners work very hard, and I think that we all deserve a minimum wage.”

RBKC said that 16 members of staff employed by Amey plc are on strike.

A council spokesperson said: ”Kensington and Chelsea Council always seeks to get value for money for our residents and taxpayers, to which we are held accountable. We are not prepared to pay more for a contract with a private sector company which has a turnover of billions and which clearly has the resources to pay staff appropriately.

“We do not control what Amey pays their own staff. However, we can announce today, that over the next few months we will be reviewing the cleaning services along with all associated costs and delivery options.”

Amey said that it is “committed to the wellbeing of its employees”, adding that RBKC “made no such request” to pay staff the London Living Wage.

An Amey spokesperson added: “As we have said on several occasions, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea can at any point vary the contract with us to accommodate the introduction of the London Living Wage.”