Outsourced workers won a major victory at a London university

Following an epic eleven year campaign, all 120 outsourced staff at SOAS will be brought in-house and given better working conditions

Outsourced staff at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) have achieved a major victory, winning a ten year campaign for better working conditions and job security.

The university announced that all 120 agency staff currently outsourced would be brought in-house and given the same workers rights as existing SOAS academic and non-academic staff, including pensions, sick pay and holiday pay.

The agreement covers staff in a number of roles including catering, conferences and events, security, reception and post room workers.

The victory comes after workers and students occupied a part of the university for two weeks in June after redundancies of catering staff were announced; the university backed down.

However, they’ve been fighting years: outsourced staff at SOAS first started campaigning for better rights 11 years ago in 2006 when cleaners at the university established the ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign.

In 2008 the cleaners, supported by their union, UNISON, won a campaign to be paid the London Living Wage.

In 2014, joined by porters at the university, the campaign won parity of terms and conditions with directly employed staff. Then in August this year, the campaign was joined by security personnel and by catering staff.

Left Foot Forward spoke to Lenin Escudero, a member of the campaign and cleaner at SOAS of 17 years. Mr Escudero, originally from Ecuador, explained what the victory will mean for over a hundred outsourced staff.

“We’ve won sick pay the same as other SOAS staff get, we’re going to get 45 days of paid annual leave, the same pension rights, and the most important thing: we’re going to get job security and be treated with dignity and respect.”

The victory is especially important as it shows that migrant workers, who often suffer some of the worst employment conditions, can organise and win industrial disputes for better treatment, says Escudero:

“Almost 90 per cent of the outsourced workforce at SOAS are migrant workers, especially from Latin America and Africa”

The key to winning the eleven year victory, says Escudero, was persistence, a diversity of tactics and growing the membership of the campaign:

“We used so many different tactics: we went on strike, went into occupation, we protested and we embarrassed the university publicly in the news”

“We started as only cleaners but when we spoke to other outsourced workers, we realised we had the same problems and so we joined together and our power over the university grew”

In 2015 the workers brought in an independent financial consultant who wrote a report that showed, against all of the university’s claims, outsourcing was actually costing SOAS more than it would cost to bring the staff in-house.

“The university had been lying to us for many years, saying they needed to save money, when the report said there was no economic reason for it. So they had no argument left against bringing us in-house”

The move by the university is also a victory for the workers’ union, UNISON, and outsourced workers everywhere. Jo Galloway, an organiser for the union commented:

“Despite increased outsourcing across the sector, SOAS is the third London university this year to recognise the cost benefits and improved delivery of in-house services through negotiations and discussions with UNISON”

The SOAS victory is a win for precarious, zero-hours and migrant workers everywhere. With persistence and creative tactics — like those that can be seen in other disputes such as the Picture House strike currently — campaigns for better working conditions can and will win.

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