• International Workplace
  • 15 October 2019

Largest ever strike action in UK higher education

Hundreds of cleaners, porters and security workers at University College London are to vote on strike action over pay and conditions. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is to ballot almost 300 workers for strike action at London’s largest university, UCL, in what could be the biggest strike ever of outsourced workers in UK higher education history.

Campaigners describe the two-tier employment system as unjust and are calling on the university  to bring all outsourced workers back in-house. The university has said it is aware of their concerns and is reviewing the terms and conditions of all its outsourced staff.

The strike is part of the union’s campaign, launched on 8 October, to end outsourcing and zero hours contracts at UCL, and will specifically demand that the outsourcing companies that manage the security contract, Axis, and the cleaning contract, Sodexo, put cleaners, porters and security officers on the same terms and conditions as UCL’s direct employees. The results of the ballot are expected on 5 November.

IWGB University of London branch chair and former UCL cleaner Maritza Castillo Calle said:

“UCL would not be able to function without its cleaners, porters and security officers, however for years the university and its contractors have been happy to treat them like second class workers. They are overworked, underpaid and mistreated, while UCL is happy to look the other way when issues are raised about the abject failure of its contractors to treat people with basic dignity. We gave UCL a clear deadline by which to present a plan to end outsourcing which it failed to abide by. Now we are left with no option but to strike.”

Over the last year the IWGB has also documented a number of severe management failures and discriminatory practices by the outsourcing companies.

The IWGB brought complaints on behalf of 30 Axis security officers who were owed over £15,000, when the company failed to properly pay their holiday pay over a period of three months, between December and February. Following these formal complaints by the University of London branch secretary, the money was paid, but there have been other instances of non-payment of holiday pay since.

In March, Sodexo tried to introduce a biometric time management system, which would require cleaners, the vast majority of whom are migrant workers, to have their fingerprints scanned when logging in and out of work. Following a collective grievance, and protests by the IWGB and its members, the introduction of this system to monitor workers was called off.