INTERVIEW: Why outsourced staff at three government departments are on strike again

“We had Andrew Lloyd Weber popping down to see how long the strike is going to go on for, and at the same time you can't afford to buy a cup of coffee at Costa."

Outsourced workers in three government departments are currently taking a further 19 days of strike action over pay and terms and conditions.

Having been striking on and off since 2019, the ISS employees that compromise outsourced cleaners, security guards and support staff are now walking out after their employer failed to improve a below inflation 2.2% pay offer.

Steven, a recent employee for ISS, told LFF that the pay offer put to the union “barely even touches the sides” for workers grappling with a cost of living crisis.

“You’re talking about people who are just above minimum wage anyway, but you’re also talking colleagues that have given 10 – 20 years to the civil service,” Steven told LFF on the picket line.

The dispute concerns workers based at the Energy Security & Net Zero, Business & Trade and Department for Science, and Innovation & Technology based in Whitehall, down the road from the Houses of Parliament and surrounded by fancy hotels and grand buildings.

“We’ve got two really rich hotels next to us,” commented Steven. “We had Andrew Lloyd Weber popping down to see how long the strike is going to go on for, and at the same time you can’t afford to buy a cup of coffee at Costa.

“You know that all of your colleagues are in the same boat. Everyone has to bring lunch because we can’t even afford to eat at the local places while the civil servants, they are in and out getting coffee and getting lunch.

“Our employer isn’t looking after even the basic needs of life to be able to continue here, but at the end of the day they know that we’re disposable.”

Recently hired by ISS as an Experience Coordinator, and having worked in the management industry for 25 years, Steven expressed shock at the way workers were being treated and said there was “no other choice” but to come out and support the striking workers.

“The way they are hacking away wages and leaving people in desperate situations, there was no other choice than to come out and support the colleagues who are at the front line of that,” he said.

“Nothing is dealt with unless you go through the union and really start making a fuss over things.”

PCS union who is supporting workers in the dispute said that ISS had made £72 million in profits last year, with £1 million handed out in bonuses to senior staff.

After an all-out strike in 2019, ISS employees won the London Living Wage and some improvements to terms and conditions. Whilst this time around workers are seeking further improvements to their pay to reflect the cost of living and inflation rises, as well as union recognition and improvements to their terms and conditions, to bring them more in line with their insourced colleagues who they work alongside.

This round of industrial action has already seen the government department staff take four and a half weeks of strikes and are now set to take another three weeks.

However PCS union organiser Duncan is hopeful there could be a deal in the coming weeks. As exploratory talks with the company have apparently offered a “chink of light” that an outcome is “hopeful”, although there is nothing concrete yet.

But the issue isn’t just with the employer, but with the system of outsourcing itself and thus the root of the problem.

“Ultimately, our aim is to have them brought back in house, because why should they be on different set of terms than the rest of civil servants?” Duncan told LFF. “It’s effectively a two-tier setup.”

Duncan said workers were “very proud to work in these offices”.

“They feel that this is a good thing for them to be doing, but they feel like they’re treated very poorly and have been for years, and the gap has just grown and grown and grown, and we’re trying to start reversing that, we’re trying to catch them up.

“But the way that they set up the new set of contracts is very fractured,” he added.

“You’ll have three different companies running different parts of the facilities management, for example you’ll have one company running security, another one doing hard services like maintenance, and another one doing soft services like reception and cleaning.

“In fact, they’re not allowed to have the same company doing all of them. The companies don’t even like it. This is the Government Property Agency’s way of going about things.

“The basic reason is to try and save money, but I don’t think it’s as efficient as they think it is, and our job is to close that gap as much as we can and basically nullify that argument.”

He noted strong support from civil servants and MPs in the dispute, with civil servants offering both moral and financial support in donating to the strike fund.

“The civil service is completely behind us,” said Duncan. “The people at the top are the ones making the decisions, and that’s why we’re noisy because we want to annoy people.

“Because ultimately we need the government departments to put pressure on the Government Property Agency to end this.

“The Government Property Agency want to just say, no, it’s nothing to do with us, your dispute is with the company. But they’re the ones funding it, so they need to put their hands in their pockets, find money to settle the pay dispute.”

A spokesperson for ISS told LFF: “We are disappointed that this action is going ahead despite our recent pay offer, which is in line with the 2023/24 Living Wage Foundation, London and Real Living wage rates and includes a cost-of-living payment. We value the contribution of every ISS team member and will continue to engage in constructive dialogue with PCS to work towards a resolution. In the meantime, we have robust plans in place to ensure service continuity at the impacted sites.”

Almost 100 workers at the departments for Energy Security & Net Zero, Business & Trade and Department for Science, and Innovation & Technology are walking out from Monday, 27 November until December 15.

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

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