Cleaners win union recognition: "No more abuse or poverty pay!"

Submitted by Anon on 12 August, 2004 - 2:55

Gemma Pillay and Jean Lane report from the East End

Cleaners who work on Canary Wharf in east London celebrated a big step forward in their campaign for a living wage on Thursday 8 July. They have won recognition for their union, the TGWU, from one of the major office cleaning contractors, ISS. They are demanding a wage of £6.70 an hour.

ISS employees clean the offices in the huge, skyscraper buildings in Docklands. The directors of the companies which own these buildings - Citibank, Barclays, HSBC, Morgan Stanley - earn more in an hour and a half than the cleaners do in a year. The Citibank Chairman gets £5,082 per hour.

The cleaners took part in a photo-shoot on 8 July and heard speeches from Jack Dromey of the TGWU, local MP Jim Fitzpatrick, local councillor John Briggs and Harriet Harman MP. All said they wanted to see an end to low pay and a right of workers to self-respect.

One of the cleaners interviewed by No Sweat said that now they must build the union amongst all the cleaners in the other companies and take strike action to improve their wages.

Marcia works as a cleaner during the night in the Morgan Stanley offices. She starts at 9.30pm and finishes at 6am. She gets £5.40 an hour and a half-hour unpaid rest break. The workers suffer gross abuse.

"We are not allowed to wear anything underneath our uniforms, not even underwear". She took the uniform out of her bag to show us. A sweat top and slacks. No pockets.

"We are not allowed lockers because we might steal something and hide it there. When we leave in the morning we are searched by security men. There are no women security officers."

Once they get into work at night they have no further contact with the outside world. They are not allowed to take in mobile phones and are not allowed to use the phones there.

"So, if the kids are sick, I can't ring home and check if they are OK", Marcia told us.

"Once we start work, we are not allowed to rest. There is a supervisor or team leader behind you all the time. Apart from in the break time, we cannot sit down".

Marcia does not earn enough to pay her mortgage with this job. So, when she leaves Canary Wharf at 6am, she goes to another clearning job at Kings College Hospital in Dulwich. This starts at 7.30am and finishes at 3.30pm.

"My youngest child is 9 years old", Marcia said. Did Marcia collect him from school and get his tea after work? "No", she said. "He gets himself home and cooks his own dinner. I am too tired".

We asked Marcia when she slept. She sort of laughed. After a bath and a rest she travels across London to start again at Morgan Stanley at 9.30pm.

A few years ago, whilst working at the hospital, Marcia suffered an industrial injury. She had to use chlorine tablets to clean the mops. The chlorine affected her eyes and she was off sick for a long time. She got no sick pay. She gets no sick pay at Morgan Stanley either.In fact, if the cleaners are sick one night in a week they lose a bonus and their hourly rate goes down from £5.40 to £4.80. So there you have it: the minimum wage is dependent on workers never having a day off work.

As we were packing up our No Sweat stall at the cleaners' rally, Marcia came past dancing to the band. We asked her where she found the energy given that she was about to begin her night shift and had filled the gap between that and her day job with a union rally in the middle of Canary Wharf. "I'm in a union now. I can't help dancing", she said.

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