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Outsourced Cleaners at the Department for Education Join Migrant Worker Strike Over ‘Bullying and Institutional Racism’

Low-paid migrant workers, including cleaners at the Department for Education, are taking coordinated strike action in London

UVW strikers at the DfE, Kadijatu Jalloh (L) and Abiola Adeleye. Photo: Josiah Mortimer

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Outsourced cleaners at the Department for Education are among 150 or so low-paid, migrant staff taking strike action around London over the next week amid claims of bullying and “institutional racism”. 

Strikers boarded an open-top double-decker “strike bus” earlier this week as migrant cleaners, carers and concierge workers walked out of their jobs simultaneously. 

Some 145 low-paid and migrant members of the United Voices of the World (UVW) union held simultaneous and coordinated strike action in seven different workplaces across Greater London on Tuesday, with at least two more dates planned for the 15 and 20 June. 

Workplaces involved in the dispute include billion-pound global giants Amazon and publishing powerhouse Ogilvy, the prestigious London School of Economics and the private Streatham and Clapham High School in South London, the Department of Education, Sage Nursing home and West End Quays luxury flats.

“We are all frustrated and we are overworked, our demands are just and fair,” a spokesperson for the strikers said. 

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Kadijatu Jalloh, a cleaner and UVW member at the Department for Education, said: “The cleaners here are being treated like second-class workers by the Government and its contractors and we won’t put up with it.” 

The DfE outsources its cleaners to private contractor OCS Group UK Limited (OCS) at the Sanctuary buildings in Westminster, working under conditions deemed worse than those granted to in-house civil servants and other staff. 

Jalloh said: “This is an injustice from which both the government department and the private company benefit – one makes profits while the other one cuts costs – and a clear example of racial discrimination as the cleaners are all Black, brown and migrant.” 

The cleaners are demanding the same terms and conditions as “everyone else” working in the building, with equal sick pay and annual leave entitlements. “Our work is no less important to the functioning of the department regardless of whether they wear suits or not,” she said. 

The dozen or so DfE cleaners also want their employers to backdate the increase in the London Living Wage to September 2022, when it came into effect, as they only received the pay rise eight months later, in April 2023 – despite the worst cost of living crisis in decades. 


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The cleaners say they are overworked and want previous adequate staffing levels restored. 

Petros Elia, UVW General Secretary, told Byline Times: “They are a real example to others. They face huge pressures, huge precarity, huge levels of abuse in the workplace, and huge levels of intimidation in the workplace. 

He said the treatment of the outsourced cleaners was clearly institutionally racist. All of them are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

“Any worker, whatever their race, whatever their job, can be bullied and harassed in the workplace, there’s no question about that. But what we hear from our members is a daily level of bullying and harassment that we don’t often hear from other people in better-paid jobs. 

“And so a lot of the grievances our members have does revolve around treatment on a personal level and also on an institutional level. At the Department of Education, there’s such a clear disparity in the demographic between civil service and cleaners.”

He added: “One group gets very good service conditions relatively, the other group gets the worst that can be legally provided. In law, that’s called indirect discrimination. We call it institutional racism.” 

The union has brought lawsuits against the Royal Parks, where outsourced workers are almost entirely from BAME backgrounds. It is going to the Court of Appeal to be heard in the next year or so.

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Any ruling is likely to have a bearing on strike action and on outsourcing more widely. 

“If the court of appeal rules in our favour, it will effectively be the death knell of outsourcing as we know it,” Elia said. “The only reason for outsourcing, despite what some people might say in terms of outsourcing, is to cut costs. That’s why they do it.”

Cleaners at the London School of Economics ended up winning their outsourcing battle through strike action in 2017 with the UVW. They now get the same terms and conditions as other university staff after being brought in-house. 

Abiola Adeleye, a cleaner at the Department for Education, told Byline Times new OCS management “shoots me down”. “There are three people monitoring six cleaners.” She used to get a short break during her five-hour morning shift but this has now been cancelled, she said, despite being in recovery from an illness. Kadijatu Jalloh also claimed management frequently refuse leave requests and is “rude.” “We want respect”. 

Matt Collins, an organiser with the union, added: “Most of these people have worked here for decades. They’ve cleaned this department, through thick and thin, through COVID, through the pandemic, for decades. They know this department inside out, they know their job inside out. They’ve been sweated, so that an outsourcing company can provide lower staffing levels and can make more profit.

“That’s causing an immense pressure and strain on their lives, and they’re no longer willing to accept them.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We are working with this supplier to ensure civil servants could safely access their place of work. Industrial relations are a matter for the employer and its employees.”

OCS was contacted for comment. 

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