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27.02.2024 / News /

I ate a tuna sandwich and I was sacked.  But I took direct action and it worked 

Gabriela, a single mother from Ecuador and UVW member, cleaned the offices of Devonshires Solicitors for two years with an impeccable record, until she was summarily sacked just before Christmas 2023 by the private contractor Total Clean. The reason? Eating a tuna sandwich, which had been left over from a meeting of lawyers, which she thought was for staff to help themselves before being chucked in the bin. Her bosses called it ‘theft’. Gabriela rallied UVW’s solidarity network for support, and armed with a speaker, 100 cans of tuna and 300 sandwiches, marched to Devonshires building. And it worked. UVW’s #tunagate solidarity protest unleashed a media storm and forced the hand of her bosses. Here is her story in her own words:

It all started one afternoon while I was about to finish my cleaning shift at Devonshires Solicitors in central London. I was employed by Total Clean and worked in two different places for them. I saw several trays there in the kitchen and to my knowledge the uneaten sandwiches would be thrown in the bin by the afternoon cleaning team at around 5pm, so I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong by taking one. It was standard practice. To my surprise a week later I was called in for a meeting and suspended very quickly – without pay. I had a sparkling clean record; no disciplinaries, no warnings before that. I got on with everyone in the Devonshires’ offices, always helping with any requests they had. A few days later I was out. 

I’ve worked in so many different jobs and have never been treated this way before. I had moved from Ecuador to Spain when I was 17 to join my mum there. In Spain, I studied Business Administration for four years at university but couldn’t complete my degree and went on to work as an administrative assistant in the human resources department of a big corporation. I also worked as a cashier in supermarket Carrefour for a bit before being promptly moved to their offices. Unfortunately, the financial crisis in 2010 meant I was made redundant and I eventually moved here in 2014, like so many other Latinos. I had always been a union member in Spain so it felt natural for me to join UVW as soon as I arrived here. It proved a very good decision.  

When Total Clean sacked me I was devastated because I’m an honest person and I didn’t steal the tuna sandwich. I was in shock at this sudden dismissal which happened in a matter of days. I was sad and worried about supporting my family because I’m a single mum. And I was also indignant because I’m a very responsible person and hard worker and I’ve always had glowing reviews of my work. I was cleaning supervisor of the year in my other job!  My dismissal felt so unfair.

With the support of my union UVW, I appealed the decision but my direct employer – cleaning services Total Clean – refused to reinstate me claiming that “theft” is “theft” and that Devonshire Solicitors, their client, had raised the complaint and they wanted to keep the client happy. I was fired on the same day I completed two years’ service with Total Clean and was also dismissed from my early morning job at a different client of Total Clean. It was harsh.

UVW also appealed to Devonshires Solicitors but they refused to intervene. Did Devonshires Solicitors have the power to intervene on my behalf? I believe so. As the client, they could have put pressure on Total Clean to reverse their decision but they chose not to. Would Devonshire Solicitors have reported an English-speaking lawyer or another worker in a suit and tie for taking one of their leftover tuna sandwiches? I don’t think so. I think there would have been a polite conversation and clarification of the rules surrounding leftover food in the office, or a warning. But it’s clear to me I was not one of them in their eyes. I was a cleaner outsourced to a contractor and not part of their team. It felt very much like discrimination to me.   

With UVW, we launched legal proceedings but going to court can take over a year so in the meantime we decided to act.

The protest action was amazing. On Valentine’s day dozens of UVW members joined me and marched into Devonshires Solicitors armed with 100 cans of tuna and 300 hand-made and wrapped sandwiches. I was very nervous at the start but I felt listened to, protected, valued and supported by my union and fellow union members. I want to thank everybody who came out and joined us there.  

#tunagate. The video of the protest

The sandwich stunt worked and within less than five minutes of the protest, Devonshire’s CEO agreed to meet our General Secretary, Petros Elia. So, we left the 300 sandwiches in reception and Petros behind for talks, and we went outside where we chanted, danced and even bowled with stacks of tuna cans! It was a happy and inspiring protest, which made me proud to be part of this community fighting for dignity and respect. 

I took action because I want justice. I want to stand up for myself, clear my reputation and encourage others who find themselves in similar situations to do the same, especially among the Latino community. It is so common for cleaners to be disciplined or sacked for the most trivial issues and we can never lower our guard because that is when we get abused. I have seen so many cleaners here who don’t get paid what they are owed because they are not constantly checking their payslips or bank accounts. It’s difficult and tiring having to chase your bosses just to get paid for your work. Why should we have to? 

We have rights. We should have respect, dignity and equality, regardless of the type of job we do, the language we speak, our country of origin, or the colour of our skin. We shouldn’t let our bosses treat us unfairly, we can do something about it if we join a union, because together is the way to fight back. You can do it too.

I would have never imagined my story winning the hearts of so many people – in the UK and even abroad – as it has done. It was picked up by so many media outlets. I was interviewed by journalists from all over, which was both nerve-racking and empowering. I’m grateful for the support of my union and the outpour of solidarity. I hope my story will inspire workers to join UVW and fight for a better deal at work.

NB: Gabriela’s legal case is with the arbitration body Acas and proceeds accordingly.  

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