King’s Cleaners

Until recently, my main contact with King’s University in the Strand in London has been waiting for buses outside it, most usually for the short journey to Waterloo or Westminster. A lot of buses stop there, though as often in London you can wait a little while before the one you need comes along. And while you do, there are giant portraits along the frontage of Kings (aka KCL) of some of the alumni listing their achievements.

And it is an impressive pantheon. King’s began in 1829 when King George IV and the Duke of Wellington got together to found it, and not surprisingly it got a royal charter that same year. In 1836 it got together with University College London (which predated it by 3 years) to found London University. In more recent years it has added to the names it can proudly display by a number of mergers, taking in among others Queen Elizabeth College (formerly its Ladies Department), Chelsea College of Science and Technology, the Institute of Psychiatry, the United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals and the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Something it can’t be so proud of is the way it has treated its cleaners. So ashamed that it actually has employed another company to do its dirty work, outsourcing the cleaning to Servest.

Cleaners at King’s are paid less than the London Living Wage and are overworked, often expected to do the work of colleagues who are sick or on holiday in addition to their own. They have conditions of employment significantly worse than King’s would dream of giving staff directly employed by them, getting only statutory sick pay and other benefits and are subjected to arbitrary disciplinary measures. They work in King’s to keep King’s clean – but King’s denies any responsibility for them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the cleaners are members of one of our major trade unions Unison. And much less surprising was that in the ballot they voted 98% in favour of taking strike action. And this rather dull day I was photographing their lunchtime rally on the second day of their strike. They had been picketing there since the early morning, but were still in great spirits, blowing horns, speaking, shouting and dancing, supported by some King’s students and staff, and Unison members from other branches, as well as some cleaners from elsewhere in other unions including the UVW. There does seem to be an increasing feeling that low paid workers need to work together to get a wage they can live on and for cleaners to no longer be treated like the dirt they clean.

King’s College cleaners strike


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