By Taryana Odayar, Executive Editor.
Last Thursday, an open meeting ‘Justice for LSE Cleaners!’ was held at the Thai Theatre, in LSE’s New Academic Building, and was attended by LSE students, staff, trade unionists and journalists. The meeting was organised by United Voices of the World (UVW), a grassroots, independent trade union which represents low-paid migrant workers across London, and whose members are mostly cleaning staff.
LSE’s current cleaning and ancillary services are outsourced to Ireland-based Noonan Group, which was first established in 1977 to provide contract cleaning services to a growing Irish public and private sector. The provisions of the contract between LSE and Noonan are outlined on the LSE website, “This contract represents a significant investment by the LSE to maintain and raise standards in FM (Facilities Management) service provision across the LSE main campus. Servicing is now provided 6am – 10pm Monday to Sunday and includes servicing of teaching rooms, meeting rooms and lecture theatres. Servicing of many conferences and events up to certain size will also be included within the scope of the contract. Day-to-day onsite management of all facets of the cleaning and ancillary services are provided in partnership by the Estates Division FM Team and resource group Service Delivery Managers (SDMs). They work shifts providing cover for the full working day including weekends.”
The demands of the cleaners, who say they have been treated like “second class people” and “the dirt we clean”, are quite straightforward. They are asking that all outsourced staff receive parity of pay and terms and conditions of employment in line with those received by in-house staff. Although the LSE outsources its cleaning staff from Noonan, the school still holds significant responsibility for the wellbeing of its cleaning staff, as well as considerable influence over the terms and conditions of employment that Noonan provides to the cleaners working on the LSE campus.
According to UVW, the cleaners are paid the London Living Wage of £9.40 per hour, but only have statutory minimum holidays, sick pay and pension contributions, compared to the more generous terms in-house LSE staff benefit from. The cleaners receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), which means they do not get paid for the first 3 days they are ill, and only get paid from the 4th consecutive day receiving £88.45 per week. Therefore, they usually opt to work even while sick so as to avoid losing income, whereas in-house staff receive occupational sick pay which entitles those who have 5 years of service under their belt to receive their full salary for 6 months, and half their salary for 6 months a year. As for Annual Leave, the cleaners get 28 days paid annual leave including bank holidays, whereas in-house staff get up to 40 days paid annual leave including bank holidays and university closures. When it comes to Pensions, the cleaners receive 1% contribution from their employer, with in-house staff receiving up to 16% contribution.
Whilst UVW has taken the fight to the LSE and made a public stand on the issue, Unison remains the official Union representative of the LSE cleaners, and will be putting forward a formal claim as the representative of the cleaners in a forthcoming meeting between Unison, Noonan and the LSE this week.
At the open meeting, several LSE cleaners testified to the discriminatory and unfair treatment they have received under their employer Noonan. Victoria Rojas disclosed that the cleaning staff do not have a room to eat or change their clothes in, and have been given specific instructions not to use the library lifts between the 4th and 5th floors. As Rojas is stationed in the library, she says she has to carry all of her cleaning products between these floors without using the lifts
Mildred Simpson, a cleaning Supervisor who has been working at the LSE since 2001, says that whereas earlier she would supervise Tower 1 for 2 hours, she has now been tasked with supervising St Clements, Cowdray and Lakatos for the same 2 hours, basically doing the job of 3 people.
Another member of the cleaning staff, Earney Williams, stated that “Noonan Managers are very incompetent” and that, “Since Noonan came in, its just been rubbish, rubbish, rubbish.” She added that the Managers display favoritism to certain staff, and have even asked the cleaners have been asked to do plumbing work in the past.
Kinkeba Makanda Iwimbi said that the discrimination and injustice occurring on campus extends from the LSE Manager to the Noonan Manager. “How would you feel if you are in our shoes?”, he asked at the meeting, adding, “I didn’t choose to be a cleaner. Its just circumstances.”
The testimonies clearly struck a raw nerve with those in the room, particularly a group of male cleaners standing at the back, who looked visibly distraught while listening to their colleagues’ testimonies. Some of them were even crying.
Most worrying perhaps, is the case of Alba Pasmino, a cleaning Supervisor who worked at the LSE for 10 years but was made redundant on Tuesday the 27th of September, and told that Friday the 30th would be her last day.
In a letter received by Alba from Noonan in August 2016, she was told that Noonan would be cutting down the number of Supervisors from 18 to 13, and restructuring the role to that of ‘Team Leader.’ The letter stated, “Having reviewed the Supervisor structure within the LSE, the nature of the contract and the roles and responsibilities of all employees assigned to this contract, and taking into account how we can best deliver a more efficient service to our client and the public, we propose the removal of the supervisory function and the introduction of a Team Lead function of 13 Team Leads. Regrettably we therefore propose the loss of 5 of the current Supervisor roles at the LSE.”
When Pasmino was informed last Tuesday that she was one of the Supervisors being made redundant, she asked if she could apply for the Team Leader position instead, but was told that the application deadline for the role had already passed. The only other role available was that of Cleaner, which she could not take up due to an occupational incident in 2012 when she contracted hand Dermatitis, and so she was made redundant.
Cleaning staff are especially prone to contracting occupation-related Dermatitis, and a report by Nottingham University’s Centre of Evidence Based Dermatology lists 80% of work-related skin disease as being contact Dermatitis (THOR-GP data). Speaking about the incident, Pasmino said that the cleaners are exposed to strong chemicals, and that the skin on her hands was severely damaged as a result of using these chemicals in 2012, with her condition worsening significantly in 2014. As a result, her skin started peeling off and she developed a bad case of Dermatitis, which meant that she couldn’t work for several months. Pasmino started taking medication such as cell regenerating cream which was prescribed by a Doctor so that she could continue working, as she said neither Noonan nor LSE provided her with any form of support.
The Beaver tried to contact LSE Director of Facilities Management Allan Blair last Friday at his office on No.1 Kingsway, but were turned away very rudely by the Head of Admin and PA to the Estates Director, Mandy Hooker, who repeatedly stated that Mr Blair would be unavailable all afternoon, and that none of the other staff in Facilities Management would be able to speak to us. The undeserved hostility with which we were met, despite having visited the offices only to obtain LSE’s side of the story, points to a more serious concern on the LSE Facilities Management’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of the LSE community. Indeed, if this is the way the FM and Estates staff treat LSE students, one can only imagine how they treat the LSE cleaners.
Despite being told by Mrs Hooker that Mr Blair would be unavailable all afternoon, later in the day Mr Blair found time to meet with The Beaver at the reception of No. 1 Kingsway, along with the Head of Facilities, Mr Chris Allister. Mr Blair stated that the LSE would be facilitating discussions between Noonan and Unison this week on the terms and conditions of the LSE cleaners’ contracts. He further stated that the United Voices of the World Union is not recognised by the school, although The Beaver recalls that UVW played a pivotal role in the successful reinstatement campaign for the ‘LSE 3’ cleaners (Henry, Earney and Kingsley) earlier this year, who were fired without notice pay for leaving work an hour early on a Saturday evening, having worked through their lunch breaks and completed all of their tasks. Hence, although the school is unwilling to recognise UVW, it is clear that they have certainly taken note of it as well as the bad publicity brought about as a result of UVW’s campaigning efforts.
When questioned on Pasmino’s redundancy and chemical exposure, Mr Blair initially refused to comment, but then stated that the LSE had asked Noonan for clarification on the nature of her redundancy, although he said he was unaware of her medical condition as a result of chemical exposure.
However, in an LSE Estates Division letter written by Mr Blair dated 13th December 2011, there is a reference to the chemicals that were newly introduced to the cleaning staff in 2012. The letter is titled, ‘Appointment of new cleaning contractor: Resource Group’, and announces Resource Group (which was later acquired by Noonan in 2014) as LSE’s cleaning contractor commencing 3rd January 2012. The letter details that the Academic Planning and Resources Committee (APRC), “have tasked Estates to review the specification of the service, to drive down costs and ensure value for money… Other new technology coming on line includes chemical dosing systems that will reduce consumable usage and cost, and an ionized water solution that is environmentally friendly and will further reduce chemical usage across the LSE campus.”
Noonan has been awarded the OHSAS 18001 certification, which is an international occupational health and safety standard which sets out the minimum requirements for identifying and controlling health and safety risks, reducing the potential for accidents, as well as aiding legal compliance.
Speaking to The Beaver on the ongoing redundancies, General Secretary of United Voices of the World, Petros Elia, stated that, “In a completely unnecessary money-saving mechanism, Noonan has just decided to sack five supervisors. I actually spoke really frankly to the Director of Noonan who works here on site (Noonan Account Director, Richard Seddon) and I said to him, what is this all about? You know that there’s no business need for this and you’re just trying to save money, and the consequences will be terrible for those who lose their jobs, and those who don’t lose their jobs will have a greater workload than before. And he said, yeah, its just about saving money. They’re not even making a pretence about this being a necessary restructuration or necessary re-organisation of the way the cleaning is done. Its just thinking, how can we save some money, yeah take it off the cleaners and the supervisors, they’re easy to sack.”
Indeed, details from accounts filed by Noonan which were published by the Irish Independent News showed a surge in revenue from €203m to €303m in 2015. Group CEO John O’Donoghue stated at the time that, “Strong organic growth coupled with full year impact of a prior year acquisition helped revenues to exceed €300m for the first time in our history.” This acquisition presumably refers to that of Noonan acquiring LSE’s formerly outsourced cleaning contractor, Northern Ireland-based Resource Services Group, in September 2014. Just last year, the Noonan Group enjoyed operating profits of €12m compared to €7.6m in 2014. However, the number of employees at the group rose last year from 6,812 to 7,125, and staff costs reportedly went up from €118.93m to €140.68m.
Mr Elia further stated that, “Noonan are making the redundancies but the idea to make these Supervisors redundant was agreed with the LSE before Noonan won the contract. That was told to me by the Director of Noonan here at the LSE. This was in the terms of the contract given to Noonan that they would restructure the Supervisors’ positions. The cleaners here have never sought to organise themselves and enter into a Union or campaigned or demanded anything, but simply put up with it. And they’ve put up with it for too long.”
An LSE Estates Facilities Management newsletter dated January 2016, announcing the successful retendering of the Cleaning contract to Noonan, seems to support the claim that Noonan and LSE agreed to the budget cuts beforehand, “The Cleaning contract for the first time was a combined Main Campus and Halls of Residence undertaking, this resulted in an award being made to one cleaning contractor and their tenure will commence as of 1st February 2016. This has made a significant saving of £250k to the cleaning budget across campus. The successful contractor was the incumbent main campus contractor, Noonan.”
Speaking to The Beaver, MSc Programmes Manager at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications, Michael Etheridge, stated that, “LSE is a wealthy institution – we have a surplus of £168 million, and our Director’s salary is £381, 000 (plus benefits!). It is inexcusable that such inequality of working terms and conditions exists between in-house and outsourced staff. We are one LSE community, and every member of staff deserves the same dignity and respect. We claim to be committed as an organisation to the values of equality, diversity and inclusion, and yet my colleagues in Cleaning Services are largely invisible, regularly disrespected and ignored. This must end now. The new International Inequalities Institute seeks to understand ‘why inequalities are escalating in numerous arenas around the world’. They need look no further than the way LSE treats its outsourced workers.”
In response to The Beaver’s request for an official statement from the school, a spokesperson for the LSE stated that, “LSE has been in constructive conversations with both Noonan and Unison to help set up discussions on pay and terms and conditions for Noonan-contracted staff. The School will continue to be part of the conversation with Noonan and Unison about employment matters for all the relevant staff members, and looks forward to working with Unison as the officially recognised union for our cleaning staff.”
When The Beaver pressed the LSE for more details in follow up emails, we were told that discussions about establishing Unison as the official union to represent the cleaners on campus at LSE have been taking place for a number of weeks, and that the School has also agreed to join Noonan and Unison at what are likely to be quarterly negotiation and consultation meetings. This is intended to be a three-way partnership to provide a forum to discuss employment matters, while recognising that the proper employment relationship is between Noonan and their staff, who are represented by Unison. Details of this new partnership arrangement are likely to be confirmed within the next fortnight.
General Secretary Busayo Twins also attended the open meeting on Thursday, and speaking to The Beaver afterwards said that, “There is no doubt that there has been an injustice, regardless of who we point fingers to. As one of the cleaners rightly said, “we are all human beings” and nobody should feel like they are worthless and unprotected by those who should be safeguarding them. For me personally, I have come to see many of the cleaners as family having built a rapport with them as an undergraduate here. They do more than just clean; they encourage and support students. As the General Secretary, I am adamant to use my platform and student networks to campaign with them. We are an LSE community and if any one of us is maltreated then we should all feel obliged to come to their defence. The founders of LSE, the Fabian society, built these walls to contribute to the ‘betterment of society’ – so let’s do them justice and first, work for the betterment of the cleaners!”
The Beaver contacted Noonan directly for a statement but did not receive a response.