Wilson Zabala, stalwart LSE cleaner, died in September. His colleagues say no one told them.

Wilson Zabala, a member of LSE’s cleaning staff who colleagues remember for his quiet, ever-positive disposition, died on September 20, 2020 in Spain after a prolonged illness. He was 44.

Known by his colleagues as unflinchingly positive and full of energy, Wilson joined LSE in 2014 while cleaning was still outsourced to the private company Noonan. He was formally hired by LSE in March 2018, along with his colleagues, following their successful insourcing campaign to be hired directly by the School. Most recently, he was on the team cleaning Fawcett House and Pethick-Lawrence House, formerly known as Towers 2 and 3.

Born in Bolivia, Wilson split his time between London, where he had a grown daughter, and Spain, where he looked after his parents. He often worked early-morning shifts elsewhere before starting his day at LSE, in order to support himself and his daughter as new immigrants to the UK. Having moved to London shortly before he began working at LSE, Wilson’s colleagues recalled fond memories of informal English lessons during work—“he was getting really good” by the end, one colleague said.

Yet LSE cleaners say they were not informed of his death until late December, according to colleagues who said that they were “shocked” to hear the news, while others say they weren’t informed until January. The School’s silence on Wilson’s death cuts to the heart of the long-standing complaints of some cleaners: “they treated his death like he never meant anything to his colleagues,” said one cleaner, who had known Wilson for six years.

It is difficult to tell the story of Wilson’s life without speaking about LSE, where he spent the last six years of his life. Even his death has become embroiled in the fragile institutional relationship between the School and its cleaners, who have long complained about unequal treatment and a culture of disrespect.

When Wilson’s supervisor was made aware of his death, she was allegedly pressured by upper management not to reveal his death to his colleagues, according to two cleaners with knowledge of the situation, who said that management insisted that the death was “private” and that LSE’s Human Resources (HR) department had not yet “released” the information to be shared. Instead, Wilson’s colleagues were told that he was sick; their incessant phone calls to check in on him went unanswered.

In a comment, LSE said that they made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Wilson in the autumn and were only informed of his death in November, and have not yet been able to make contact with his family. A Facilities Management spokesperson said that “[w]e were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Wilson Zabala who passed away last year. Our condolences and thoughts are with his family and friends,” but stressed that “there was no authorised instruction that Wilson’s death should not be discussed.” 

Some cleaners say that those instructions were given anyways.

A former supervisor of Wilson’s, who spoke to The Beaver on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal, felt that the long delay from November to January was “absolutely disrespectful.” The cleaner, who worked alongside Wilson for six years, said that she did not understand why LSE delayed news of the death for so long, and indicated that staff deaths in the past had been shared immediately with colleagues of the deceased: “that’s not the way we treat people who pass away in the family,” she said.

Another colleague said “when working in a big institution like LSE and working long hours, day-in and day-out, our colleagues become part of our family.” School management’s delay in telling cleaners about Wilson’s death was insulting, he said: “Wilson was a good worker and deserved respect and dignity—not treating him as if he didn’t exist.”

“We hear of professors dying at LSE and other members of the community and they don’t hide it. So why would they hide one of us: Wilson, we loved you and we pray your soul rests in peace.”

In a comment, Mary Lee, LSE Senior Facilities Manager, and Joseph Ladele, LSE Facilities Manager, said: “Our condolences go to the family of Wilson Antonio Zabala, who passed away on 20th September in Spain…Wilson was a very cheerful individual and a positive, happy colleague. He was hard working and full of energy. He is missed greatly by the FM team.”

Wilson is survived by his daughter.

Note: The Beaver endeavors to publish obituaries in a timely manner following the passing of LSE workers, students, and professional and academic staff, where appropriate. Wilson’s colleagues were not informed of his death until January, following which they contacted The Beaver to commemorate him. The Beaver is therefore publishing this obituary in Wilson’s memory.

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