The long struggle by cleaners at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to unionise, and their successful fight for the London Living Wage, all in the teeth of the most vicious opposition from the giant multinational cleaning agency ISS, which employs them, has been a great inspiration to the poorly-paid and vulnerable cleaners, most drawn from migrant labour, who keep the capital’s colleges, trains, offices and streets swept and mopped.
It is undoubtedly for this reason that this democratic campaign for the right to organise has been met with an openly police-state response. However, this draconian action has, in its turn, drawn welcome new forces into the fray.
Shortly after the struggle for unionisation at SOAS was crowned with success, with ISS forced into signing a recognition deal with Unison, the company took its revenge. Telling its cleaners they all had to attend an emergency meeting on 12 June, they crowded everyone into a SOAS lecture theatre, barred the exits, and then opened the doors to an invasion by 40 policemen clad in riot gear.
This raid, planned by the ISS in cahoots with the UK Border Agency, was conducted in the most inhumane fashion. Everyone, including a heavily pregnant woman, was kept locked in without access to their union reps, to legal assistance or even to water. One by one, workers were hauled out of the pool for interrogation. Of the nine workers detained through this process, five were subsequently deported and another two were interned at the concentration camp (or ‘Removal Centre’) at Yarl’s Wood (where they have joined other internees on hunger strike). Other cleaners have been driven into hiding by this naked intimidation.
The students at SOAS, some of whom had already involved themselves in the cleaners’ campaign for union recognition, responded speedily to this gross provocation, occupying the office of the Principal, Professor Paul Webley, for three days, demanding that the college face up to the enormity of what had just occurred. Under intense pressure from this student occupation, which was supported by many lecturers, SOAS management was driven into negotiation with the students’ union, resulting in a joint statement on 17 June from managers and students.
The statement notes, “The events surrounding last Friday have been deeply distressing for everyone at SOAS and in particular the individuals who were detained. Furthermore, we are disturbed by allegations that have emerged about the possible role that ISS played in the visit. ”
Under the agreement, management undertook to ask the Home Office to let all the cleaners stay in the country and to bring the deportees back. They further agreed “to discuss health and safety issues relating to immigration raids and acknowledge UCU [the lecturers’ union] policy of non-compliance with immigration raids”. The management also said they would have a look at “the possibility of bringing cleaning services in-house”.
The agreement included a guarantee of immunity for those involved in the student protest, recognised “the valued contribution of all migrants who have worked at SOAS over the years” and made reference to “a long tradition of welcoming people from all over the world”.
We do not doubt that the students will keep a close eye on the authorities to ensure compliance with these limited undertakings, and will be ready to meet any backsliding with the appropriate response. It is clear that it is the cleaners, students and lecturers engaged in resistance who truly uphold everything progressive about this famed educational establishment, not a management whose recent curious interpretation of the “long tradition of welcoming people from all over the world” has brought shame on their heads.
This management can hardly pose as an innocent bystander to the raid. Had the raid gone ahead without the knowledge or permission of the college authorities, they would surely have protested most vocally about this violation of private property and academic sanctuary. We must draw our own conclusions from their deafening silence on this question.
However, whilst the agreement wrung from the liberal establishment at SOAS does not mean that the college has any intention of coming clean about the extent of its own collaborationist role, the spirited action taken by the students in solidarity with the persecuted cleaners has set an example that others will do well to follow.
These events have turned the spotlight on the real relationship between the capitalist state, corporate bullies like ISS, and supposed havens of academic freedom and independence, proving that it is not in occupied Palestine alone that educational institutions are invaded at will by thugs in uniform.
We salute the cleaners and students of SOAS, who, by taking this bold step forward together, have administered a sharp rebuff to those who would use racism to divide our collective resistance to capitalism.
(Up-to-date information on the developing campaign can be found at freesoascleaners.blogspot.com)