3 Cosas

Justice for Cleaners, May 2006

I think the first time I photographed London’s cleaners was at the launch of the London Citizen Workers’ Association, very nearly seven years ago on the ‘Feast of St Joseph the Worker’, better known to the rest of us as May Day. London Workers was, I wrote “a new organisation to support low-wage and migrant workers across London, backed by faith organisations, trade unions and social justice organisations” and a major part of their campaign was to get all workers in London paid at least the ‘London Living Wage.’

Although low paid workers have managed to get some employers to pay the living wage, mostly as a result of  very public noise protests outside workplaces, there is still a long way to go, and even where workers have managed to get the living wage, the terms and conditions of many low paid staff are still grossly inferior to those of others who work in the same places.

I was at the University of London to photograph a protest by low paid workers there in what they have called the ‘3 Cosas‘ campaign. While some of those working in the university buildings are employed directly by London University, most of the low paid workers are employed by other companies – they are outsourced. And outsourcing saves the University money not by employing other people to manage their staff, not by more efficient working, but by cutting down on things like pensions, sick pay and holidays. These are the three areas, the three causes of the campaign.

While the university itself would not dream of treating its employees badly like this, somehow it is quite happy to pay other people to treat its workers badly, to exploit them. In fact not only are the conditions bad, but many also experience bullying, racism and other forms of disrespect from the managers employed by the outsourced companies.

The first protests by low paid workers that I photographed were supported by traditional unions like the T&GWU (Transport and General Workers Union – now a part of Unite) but sometimes it seemed to the workers that the these unions were not too keen to fight for their cause, often seeming too ready to concede and bargain with employers rather than to really push the claim for justice, and to allow companies to victimise some of the more militant workers.  Many of the cleaners joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), and later broke away from the other English branches of that to form a new union – though with an old name – the IWGB.

So one of the things I’ve been keen to show when photographing their protests are the flags, placards and banners  with the union insignia, although of course in a way that seems organic to the action – I don’t want to pose these any more than I pose people.  The banner here is fine, though the flags illustrate that these are tricky to photograph, often fluttering madly or hanging limp.

One other problem can also be seen in the image above is that of lighting contrast. The protesters are in a ground floor area below the building which, although it has large open doorways, is still considerably darker than outside. As you can see above, to maintain detail in the shadows inside means that the highlight areas through the doorway at left are largely blank. I’ve had to burn them in considerably to darken the figures outside as well as bringing down the ‘white’ slider in Lightroom down to bring the white area just within range.

Where possible I avoided the problem, as in the second image where I deliberately made the image from a position where the speaker effectively blocks the doorway behind. It seemed too that it was an image that summed up much of what the protest was about, both in the attitude of the speaker – helped by some nice rim lighting as well as that open mouth, but with the text of the placard and the solidarity of the people with their red flags and banner in the background, backing up  the demand.

More pictures from the event, inside and outside the lobby and more details of the situation and the campaign demands at ‘3 Cosas’ -Sick Pay, Holidays & Pensions.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated are by Peter Marshall and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

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