A Day at the Cleaners

Small grass roots unions such as the CAIWU, UVW and IWGB representing mainly migrant workers have spear-headed the drive to get the London Living Wage for low paid workers, particularly cleaners in London. Many are Spanish speaking and have found asylum here following various upheavals in Central and South America and others have Spanish passports. With some exceptions, the larger unions have found it hard to engage with these workers, partly because of language difficulties.

Alberto Durango of the CAIWU speaks inside Lloyds against racist sacking by Principle Cleaning Services

Many of those who have come to work in this country have come from more skilled work in their own countries and their qualifications mean little or nothing here or they do not have the language skills needed for similar jobs here. Generally they are more articulate and more politically aware than equivalent British-born workers, and often surprised at what British workers put up with from managers and trade union officials. Perpared to work hard, they demand to be treated with dignity and respect – as some of their placards say ‘We are NOT the dirt We clean’.

When I can, I photograph their protests, though these seldom make the UK newspapers and probably get more coverage around the world than in the UK. The pictures do get shared on social media and the presence of the press at them does increase their impact. Protests are a way of embarrassing the companies to take action, with their noise and visual impact making an impression of those who work in the same building or close by, and also through social media and publication on a wider audience and companies are generally sensitive to any possible damage to their image.

The demands the cleaners make are always reasonable. Everyone should be paid a wage that is enough to live on – the London Living Wage as a minimum. No-one should be bullied or harassed at work, or given impossible workloads. People should get decent conditions of service – sick pay, holidays, pensions… What they are fighting against is largely outsourcing of cleaning work, where reputable companies that would never cut salaries and conditions of their own workers to the bone employ cleaning contractors, generally on fairly short-term contracts which go to the lowest bidder – who trim their bids at the expense of the workers. They cut staffing levels, overworking the cleaners and lowering the standard of cleaning, they cut pay and conditions as far as they are able.

That can mean the legal minimums of pay and conditions, but protests by unions like the CAIWU can manage to persuade those setting the contract to include the insistence that all workers should be paid at least the London Living Wage, and they could also insist on a decent standard of conditions.

But outsourcing of cleaning and other services is just a part of a wider problem that seems particularly rife in the UK. Unnecessary levels of management where company A pays company B to provide a service which they then sub-contract to company C – with sometimes as many as five companies involved, each taking its profit for shareholders between the company that the work is done for and the guy who actually does it.

A security officer starts pushing the protesters, then has clearly been watching too much football…

and suddenly makes a rather unconvincing dive to the floor, pretending he has been hit

The Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU) is a small union with no paid staff and run on the contributions from members and some donations but it is an active one. I hadn’t realised when I travelled up to meet them at Liverpool St Station that they were intending to protest at three offices across the lunch time and early afternoon.

We started by walking to Lloyds, and the cleaners briefly occupied the foyer there before being forced to leave and protesting outside. The union accuse Principle Cleaning Services there of racial discrimination over the sacking two African workers, and of sacking a third African because of his trade union activities.

There was a curious incident when one of the security officers who had been pushing some of the cleaners suddenly dived to the floor, claiming he had been hit – see above. I was standing close to him and would have seen and certainly heard if a blow had been struck. But occasions like this make me realise how much better as evidence it would have been if I had been taking video rather than still photography. Usually there is at least one other photographer present with a video camera, but not on this occasion.

Cleaners leave 155 Moorgate to continue the protest on the pavement outside

The cleaners then walked to Moorgate, to rush in to the lobby of Mace’s headquarters building in Moorgate in a noisy against cleaning contractor Dall Cleaning Service; they accuse the manager there of nepotism and say two cleaners have been improperly dismissed and reductions made in both conditions of service and the actual working conditions.

Again after a short protest inside they walked out to continue the protest in the busy street outside.

The receptionist at the offices housing Claranet’s London HQ pushes CAIWU organiser Alberto Durango

Finally, I caught a bus with them to Holborn, and the offices of Internet service provider Claranet, who with their cleaning contractor NJC have ignored the union’s attempts to negotiate for the London Living Wage where the protest followed the same pattern.

Cleaners at Claranet for Living Wage
Cleaners at Mace protest Dall nepotism
Cleaners in Lloyds against racist sacking


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

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