SOAS occupied after cleaners detained and forcibly removed
June 18, 2009 — News
Written by Rebecca Wood
Students have taken action after nine cleaners, who campaigned for a ‘living wage’ whilst working at a top London university, were detained in a dawn raid by immigration officers dressed in full riot gear.
Six of the workers have since been forcibly removed to South American countries, including Colombia, where gross human rights abuses against trade unionists are regularly documented. Two workers continue to be held in immigration detention.
Cleaning staff were told to attend an ’emergency staff meeting’ at 6.30am on Friday 12 June by their employers, the cleaning contractor ISS. Within minutes the meeting was raided by at least twenty immigration officers. The cleaners were locked in the room and escorted one-by-one into another classroom where they were interrogated. They neither had access to union support nor legal representation and many were allegedly unable to fully understand what was happening due to the absence of interpreters. SOAS press office maintain that a translator was present during the interviews.
Nine cleaners, including five UNISON members, were detained. Reports suggest that one detained individual is six months pregnant and is thought to have collapsed, whilst other reports suggest a worker suffered a heart attack during the raids.
Those detained had been working at SOAS for many years and had settled family lives in London. This workforce of university cleaners was one of the first to campaign for union representation and a ‘living wage’, a policy that was subsequently backed by the governing body of SOAS.
Students and activists supporting the cleaners have argued that the decision by ISS, the cleaning contractor, to draw the UK Border Agency’s attention to employees of long-standing may have been politically motivated. They raise concerns about ISS’ use of these tactics as a form of intimidation and to discourage other agency workers from fighting for union representation and a ‘living wage’.
Cleaning contractor ISS has previously been embroiled in a similar controversy when cleaners on the London tube made allegations of intimidation, bullying and being threatened with the sack whilst striking for a ‘living wage’.
Questions about the degree of SOAS management’s complicity in the raids has also been raised by the students and activists, given that two members of management were reportedly present during the raid, directly liaising with the police.
One of the detained cleaners said: ‘We’re honest people not animals. We are just here to earn an honest living for our families.’
Labour MP John McDonnell said: ‘As living wage campaigns are building in strength, we are increasingly seeing the use of immigration statuses to attack workers fighting against poverty wages and breaking trade union organising. The message is that they are happy to employ migrant labour on poverty wages, but if you complain they will send you back home. It is absolutely shameful.’
As a result of the raid and deportations, some sixty students from the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) began a three-day occupation of the director’s office early on Monday morning. The occupation ended yesterday, with SOAS director Paul Webley agreeing to write to the Home Secretary ‘requesting that he grants exceptional leave to remain in the UK [for] those cleaners who are still being detained’, ‘the immediate return of those who have been deported and exceptional leave to remain for those forced into hiding by Friday’s raid’. The full statement is available from the SOAS press office.
Supporters of the campaign include Tony Benn, Green Party MEP Jean Lambert and London Assembly member Jenny Jones, Jeremy Corbyn MP, George Galloway MP and filmmaker Ken Loach.
Read the agreement in full
Sign a petition in support of the cleaners
Blogspot page: Free SOAS Cleaners
Facebook page: Stop the Deportation of SOAS University Cleaners!
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.