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27.06.2024 / News /

The movement is growing: caterers at DfE join the fight!

Confidence has been crucial in my journey. It all started with the courage of my colleagues in the cleaning team. One year ago, they sparked a movement within the Department for Education, the Government Property Agency, and our former contractors, OCS (…) When I faced my own issues with OCS, I knew I had to reach out to the United Voices of the World.

April, assistant catering manager at DfE’s Sanctuary Buildings, UVW member and striker

At a recent strike solidarity meeting hosted by the Islington branch of the National Education Union (NEU) on June 25, April, the assistant catering manager at Sanctuary Buildings, Department for Education, delivered a rousing speech that ignited the room with passion and solidarity. Inspired by the courageous striker cleaners at the DfE, who have taken strike action for the second time in a year, April joined UVW and, alongside her outsourced colleagues, is also downing tools to demand equality with civil servants and to protest against the impoverishing effects of outsourcing. Her heartfelt words resonated deeply as she offered support and solidarity from the UVW family to the teachers in their own fight for better pay and conditions. The movement is growing stronger, with members from various trades at the DfE joining in the fight for justice, equity, dignity, and respect. Here is April’s powerful speech in its entirety:

I’m April, the assistant catering manager at Sanctuary Buildings, which, as you all know, is the home of the Department for Education.

Before I discuss the situation involving us contractors in Sanctuary, I want to thank all the educators and teachers here. Teaching is a profession close to my heart, not just because of where I work but also because my sister is a school teacher.

My sister Francesca has been on an incredible journey as an English teacher, taking her from one end of the country to the other. Her dedication and expertise have led her to become a department lead in multiple schools. Her passion for education only intensified when her daughter entered the school system, especially since she is neurodivergent. This further highlighted the already-known failures of a government seemingly determined to hinder the success of the working class and limit their aspirations.

April (bottom left) with NEU members

Francesca also knew of my own experiences as an undiagnosed neurodivergent student, which further fueled her determination to advocate for change. After many years as a teacher, she decided to become a student once again, pursuing and earning her Master’s in education. Her focus was on the current guidelines for neurodivergent children in schools, specifically young girls, which she found was based on outdated and male-centric misinformation. These guidelines have negatively impacted not only her daughter, but myself, another colleague at Sanctuary and countless others across the country.

She took this knowledge to work as a SENCO and then became the lead SENCO in her area. But even as a highly experienced educator in multiple fields, she was still appalled at the budget cuts and restrictions that made her job near impossible. And whilst she truly wanted to make an impact on the teaching of neurodivergent children in the UK, she could not do it at a cost to her own children. Hence, her return to primary school teaching.

I frequently think back to the words of my year six primary school teacher, Mrs Balderson. She once shared with my class, as we were preparing to leave school and embark on different paths, that our lives were like a puzzle. Each moment in our lives is a small puzzle piece contributing to a much larger picture. Throughout my life, I’ve held onto Mrs Balderson’s words, realising that what might appear significant at present is just a tiny puzzle piece in the entire picture of life.

As I speak with you, I think of all the individuals who have impacted my education. I also think of the many times I have witnessed teachers picketing outside the DfE and the tales of my sister’s struggles. Teachers across the country are not being paid anywhere near their worth. Calculating the hours of labour that go into the teaching profession versus the salary received equates to slave labour.

I owe a lot to the teachers and school staff who guided me, even though I can’t name them all. I probably wouldn’t have the confidence to stand before all of you as I do now. Great educators, despite the challenges in their field, are the ones who truly believe in their students and fill them with confidence that stays with them forever.

Confidence has been crucial in my journey. It all started with the courage of my colleagues in the cleaning team. One year ago, they sparked a movement within the DfE, the Government Property Agency, and our former contractors, OCS. Just as I was deeply inspired by the many teachers I have seen take this government to task, I was equally impressed by that team. When I faced my own issues with OCS, I knew I had to reach out to the United Voices of the World.

From that point, progress began slowly. Now, all of my colleagues in the catering team are members of UVW, and membership is growing in other departments throughout the building.

Sanctuary Buildings’ cleaners, caterers, reprographics, and reception staff are currently employed by ISS, which took over from OCS on October 31st, 2023. Most, if not all, of the facilities team were employed prior to ISS winning the contract, with many experiencing numerous contractors walk through the doors. Notably, one member of the cleaning team has dedicated three decades of service to Sanctuary Buildings.

The Government Property Agency (GPA), or as we call them, ‘The Landlords’, is an executive agency sponsored by the Cabinet Office. The GPA formally took control of managing the DfE and the civil service last year, coinciding with ISS’s takeover.

According to Wikipedia, the GPA is tasked with “managing the government’s central estate offices and warehouses, supporting government departments as tenants, providing workplace services to government departments, and offering portfolio advice to support departments’ objectives.”

However, if I could edit this page, I would describe the GPA as ‘being responsible for destroying contractor and client relations, enabling (highly paid) bureaucrats with no practical experience to dictate how work should be done, funding only what they deem important without logical consideration or respect for the labor required, and providing workers with the bare minimum legal rights, and nothing more.’

The cleaners, and now caterers, are fighting for the bare minimum, just slightly above what the law requires. I believe you will understand this fight all too well.

Why should a contractor who has served the building as long as, or longer than, a civil servant be entitled to anything less? It’s not just about salary and wages—why should a civil servant receive weeks of paid sick leave per year while a cleaner, who works longer hours in a more physically demanding role, be entitled to only the statutory minimum?

How is it acceptable that, due to cost-cutting measures, all caterers, cleaners, and other staff who were once entitled to civil service contracts aren’t anymore, as they have been discontinued and replaced with cheaper contract models, saving money largely by cutting wages?

Why did the government continue to subsidise the staff restaurant where I work throughout COVID-19 and beyond, even when it made zero profit, while simultaneously arguing against providing free school meals for children?

Why were schools nationwide, responsible for nearly 100,000 students, forced to close due to RAAC in the buildings and years of insufficient funding, putting them at risk of collapse, while Sanctuary Buildings is currently undergoing a complete, intensive refurbishment costing millions? This is despite the building being less than 55% occupied weekly post-COVID and after already spending £111 million on refurbishing the Old Admiralty Building between 2014 and 2017, only to scrap the move in 2017.

Why are civil servants trusted to work remotely, but our children are not given the same flexibility in their education? The same government that recognises the benefits of remote work for its own employees refuses to extend this option to students or teachers, many of whom thrived under remote learning.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and does not delve into the challenges faced by my colleagues. Take, for example, our head chef, who has been working at Sanctuary Buildings for over 12 years. After a surgery on his knees, pain that was most likely aggravated by the physically demanding nature of his job, He had to use 21 annual leave days to recover. A further 39 days were spent on £116.75 weekly statutory sick pay.

In fact, after refusing to cross the picket line a few weeks ago in solidarity with the cleaners, civil servants expressed interest upon our return to work that week. One pointed out that if she feels under the weather and would like to be courteous to her colleagues, she can work from home or take the day off and be paid for it. She understood in that moment how insidious the two-tiered workforce in government truly was.

According to the legal requirements of Annex II, Chapter 8 of Regulation (EC) 2004 on the ‘hygiene of foodstuffs’: “No person suffering from, or being a carrier of a disease likely to be transmitted through food or afflicted, for example, with infected wounds, skin infections, sores or diarrhoea is to be permitted to handle food or enter any food-handling area in any capacity if there is any likelihood of direct or indirect contamination.“

Food handler means what it sounds like. However, it also includes anyone who may touch food-contact surfaces or other surfaces in rooms where open food is handled. This means the term can also apply to managers, porters, and even cleaners.

So, to follow the law, managers or the ‘food-handler’ themselves must be excluded from the premises for at least 48 hours from the last symptom. This is, again, the law and is 100% necessary to prevent severe illness or even death from possible bacterial contamination from a staff member to another or to a customer. Foodborne illnesses are not just feeling poorly; they can be deadly, especially for young children, pregnant people, the elderly, and other immune-compromised individuals.

My team takes food hygiene extremely seriously. We score near 100% on internal audits and have three 5-star door awards from the Westminster Council Environmental Health agency.

But if I partied too hard one Saturday night and was still sick on Sunday and must be clear of any vomiting symptoms for at least 48 hours, my earliest return to work would be Tuesday. If I chose to follow the law, as all those on my team would, I would not be paid for my absence on Monday, even if I had not been sick that day, even if my sickness was induced by alcohol rather than infection.

We are only entitled to SSP after three days of being off sick. Again, although it varies, SSP is a little over £15 a day.

Someone developed a mild cold that turned sour on the weekend and would like the Monday off to recover and protect your colleagues and all customers as you are a food handler? Fine, but that’s at your own expense.

The Food Standard Agency’s Fitness to Work Guide for managers and employers perfectly points out the danger in this system. ‘Penalising staff for being ill, for example, by not paying them when they are excluded from work, could lead to them working whilst ill and may lead to food safety problems.’

According to Regulation 19 of the Food Safety and Hygiene Regulations 2013, any breach of food safety and food hygiene regulations, such as not declaring symptoms or lying on a return to work form, can result in an unlimited fine and/or 2 years custody. This can also apply to the management in charge and the company itself.

So, there are not only moral incentives to protect your fellow man by not coming into work sick but also very heavy legal repercussions for yourself, management, and the company if you were to do so. And yet, ISS, the GPA, and the government as a whole do not deem it necessary for a contract to include full paid sick leave from day 1 of illness to prevent imprisonment and deaths.

In the same way that children in your schools would not be fed if the school catering team decided not to turn up one day and your classrooms would be filthy if the cleaners did not do heir job, the government runs similarly. Trust me, we have a saying: ‘Do not get between a civil servant and their cup of tea’.

Our similarities don’t end there. They like to divide hospitality workers, cleaners and other facilities staff from those with ‘proper’ professions like teaching, but your job is to prepare the youth of this country for the rest of their lives. And while jobs like mine and my colleagues are often viewed as ‘student work’ or unskilled, for me and my colleagues, these are our professional careers. And whilst you and your colleagues will have high aspirations for the people you teach, I am sure many of you will have been involved in the education of people who have gone on to become cleaners, chefs, hospitality staff, baristas, porters and so on, and if you haven’t at some point, you will.

Those in the education sector are forced to bend to the will of OFSTED and live and work in fear due to the punitive nature of its inspections. We in the catering team feel those same pressures when each new contractor takes over, looking to make a profit, sees that a staff restaurant isn’t exactly a highly lucrative money-making machine, so they put staff at risk of redundancy. Under OCS, in 2021, all 20 catering staff members were put up for redundancy. This resulted in 3 leaving the team, 3 redeployments and 5 redundancies. Then again, in January 2023, the remaining 9 of us were again put at risk. We have never been officially told we are no longer at risk of redundancy.

So, in the same way you wish to demand from your employers and the government adequate pay for yourselves and protections for the students you teach, by supporting the fight in Sanctuary Buildings, you would be helping to secure adequate pay and protections not just for us currently working here, but the youth who are given the stepping stones to the future by people like you, and who might happen to become a member of facilities staff at Sanctuary Buildings one day.

The thing is, the fight doesn’t end with us. Up and down Whitehall, across this country, are contracted staff working across various government departments on abysmal wages with the bare minimum job benefits. When we win at Sanctuary, we will set a precedent and secure a win for thousands of people nationwide just like us.

By the time that happens, if the teachers and education staff still have not secured their fundamental working rights, you’ll be able to bang on Sanctuary Buildings’ door and use a megaphone to point out that the restaurant’s assistant manager is on a better wage and contract than you.

I can speak for all of UVW and my team when I say we stand alongside you in your fight. We support the fight to secure a better future for pupils in this country, to abolish pencil-pushing government agencies that don’t seek to learn and understand the working environment and cultivate a relationship but penalise and create a culture of fear, to scrutinise government spending and cuts, us in catering especially support your fight for an expanded curriculum which nurtures young peoples passions which the Tories deem unworthy and will be putting the same pressure on the GPA & ISS, as you are the government, to increase wages and form better contracts in our respective industries to see recruitment and job retention flourish.

When our small, seemingly insignificant puzzle pieces unite, our demands will no longer be ignored. Together, we can create a big picture that will change the lives of workers nationwide.

Thank you,

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