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School Cleaners to Strike Against “Wage Theft” and Racism

School Cleaners to Strike Against “Wage Theft” and Racism
22 February 2021 | Updated 16 March 2021
 

Outsourced cleaners at La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School are to strike for 40 days regarding “unlawful wage deductions” and alleged “institutional racism” against them.

Commencing on 16 March 2021, the South London school’s cleaning staff, all of whom are Latin American migrants, will strike for forty days and forty nights. The cleaners are all employees of La Retraite’s contractor Ecocleen.

The strike has been organised by the trade union United Voices of the World (UVW), who says it will be the “longest school cleaners strike in UK history”.

The group are calling for parity in terms and conditions with the school’s teachers, including full pay sick pay, the London Living Wage, a reversal to a reduction in their hours of work, trade union recognition, and repayment of what their union says in unlawfully withheld wages.

This news comes as the British Cleaning Council has recently formed an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the cleaning and hygiene sector, to fight for the sector’s operatives as key and essential workers, and their priority for COVID-19 vaccination.

 

Update – Ecocleen Statement

 

ThisWeekinFM has reached out to Ecocleen for comment, and a spokesperson has released the following statement:

"On Monday, 22nd February Ecocleen received notification of a number of stories that appeared in the media pertaining to the remuneration and working conditions of our cleaners at La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School in Clapham Park, London.

"Ecocleen is fully committed to safeguarding the health and safety of all of our workers across every one of our sites during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Since the start of the pandemic, we have undertaken the necessary COVID-19 risk assessment in line with the UK Government guidelines throughout the business, including at La Retraite.

"All of our workers deserve to be compensated for their services and hard work in these challenging circumstances, which is why we are pleased that, as of January 2021 and following La Retraite’s proposal, all cleaners on site are being paid the London Living Wage.

"We can also confirm that, since the start of the pandemic, Ecocleen has provided PPE equipment to all of our cleaners across all of our sites, to ensure the safe working practices of all of our valued employees.

"Finally, we recognise our employees’ right to go on strike and will remain in close dialogue and consultation with them to establish how Ecocleen is able to best support their needs with our specialist health and safety team at Peninsula."

 

“It was never our intention to go on strike, but I believe that our demands are fair and that anyone with a little empathy can understand where we’re coming from. They have left us no choice. They won’t listen to us, they won't  talk to us, and they won’t treat us fairly so what other choice do we have than to strike if we want to be heard?”

–Magalay Quesda

Ecocleen Cleaner, La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School

 

Longest Cleaner Strike in UK’s History

 

The dispute centres around the fact that the cleaners are outsourced to a private contractor Ecocleen which results in the receiving inferior pay rates and terms and conditions to those enjoyed by La Retraite staff, including only getting Statutory Sick Pay, whilst everyone else gets full pay sick pay. 

Roberto, one of the cleaners at La Retraite says, “when we get ill - either with COVID-19 or something else - we simply can’t afford to take sick leave. If we do, we’ll lose our wages, and as we already live on the breadline every penny we lose risks leaving us unable to buy food or pay for rent. And what’s worse is that the La Retraite knows this. Which is why teachers get full pay sick pay. If teachers get it then why can’t cleaners?”

Tensions in the dispute worsened recently after Ecocleen deducted an entire months’ wages from some of the cleaners after they refused to work until Ecocleen carried out a risk assessment and addressed their safety concerns. After the four weeks that nearly half the school’s cleaners stayed away from work for their health and safety demands were finally met. But in what their union calls a “cruel, vindictive & unlawful punishment” their wages were withheld forcing some of the cleaners to look for loans and food banks to survive.

UVW union has pledged to take Ecocleen to court to recover the withheld wages in what will be the first legal claim of its type in relation to a COVID-19 safety walk out. 

Ecocleen is allegedly defending its decision to withhold wages on the basis that the cleaners did not attend work and that they are exercising their “no work, no pay” policy. However, the UVW says the cleaners' decision to refuse to work was lawful and protected by section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

 

“Institutional Racism”

 

Petros Elia, UVW organiser says “As all the cleaners are BAME and/or migrant workers, whilst the majority of La Retraite staff are white, this double standard in pay and terms and conditions, which has no justification other than cost, breaches the Equality Act and La Retraite’s Public Sector Equality Duty. It’s institutional racism in our view. So as well as supporting our members to strike for 40 days and 40 nights and as long it takes beyond that to ensure they are treated as justly and as equals, we will also be bringing legal proceedings.”

Elia goes on to say that, “This type of injustice may be commonplace in private, profit-hungry companies but to see it in a Catholic School which has made an explicit commitment live by ‘Gospel values and the teachings of the church’ including ‘treating everyone equally and with justice’ shows that when it comes to the cleaners these are mere pious platitudes.”

Speaking about the upcoming strike action, Magalay Quesda, a migrant from Cuba who works at the school, said the following: 

“It was never our intention to go on strike, but I believe that our demands are fair and that anyone with a little empathy can understand where we’re coming from. They have left us no choice. They won’t listen to us, they won't  talk to us, and they won’t treat us fairly so what other choice do we have than to strike if we want to be heard?”

This issue of a lack of parity regarding contracted cleaning staff, and those working directly for an organisation, was raised in TWinFM's latest editorial review.

Picture: a photograph of some of the cleaning staff in question, all wearing face masks

Article written by Ella Tansley | Published 22 February 2021

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