Starting on 16th March a group of cleaners at the prestigious South London Roman Catholic Girls’ School, La Retraite, are set to take the first strike in the school’s 140 year history pledging to walk out for 40 days and 40 nights in “righteous indignation” about “unlawful wage deductions”, “poverty pay” and “institutional racism”. If all the planned strike days are taken, it will make it the longest school cleaners strike in UK history.
The dispute centres around the fact that the cleaners are outsourced to a private contractor Ecocleen which results in the receiving inferior pay rates and terms and conditions to those enjoyed by La Retraite staff, including only getting Statutory Sick Pay, whilst everyone else gets full pay sick pay.
Roberto, one of the cleaners at La Retraite says, “when we get ill – either with COVID-19 or something else – we simply can’t afford to take sick leave. If we do, we’ll lose our wages, and as we already live on the breadline every penny we lose risks leaving us unable to buy food or pay for rent. And what’s worse is that the La Retraite knows this. Which is why teachers get full pay sick pay. If teachers get it then why can’t cleaners?”
Tensions in the dispute worsened recently after Ecocleen deducted an entire months’ wages from some of the cleaners after they refused to work until Ecocleen carried out a risk assessment and addressed their safety concerns. After the 4 weeks that nearly half the school’s cleaners stayed away from work for their health and safety demands were finally met. But in what their union calls a “cruel, vindictive & unlawful punishment” their wages were withheld forcing some of the cleaners to look for loans and food banks to survive.
UVW union has pledged to take Ecocleen to court to recover the withheld wages in what will be the first legal claim of its type in relation to a COVID-19 safety walk out.
Petros Elia, UVW organiser says “As all the cleaners are BAME and/or migrant workers, whilst the majority of La Retraite staff are White, this double standard in pay and terms and conditions, which has no justification other than cost, breaches the Equality Act and La Retraite’s Public Sector Equality Duty. It’s institutional racism in our view. So as well as supporting our members to strike for 40 days and 40 nights and as long it takes beyond that to ensure they are treated as justly and as equals, we will also be bringing legal proceedings.”
Petros goes on to say that, “This type of injustice may be commonplace in private, profit hungry companies but to see it in a Catholic School which has made an explicit commitment live by “Gospel values and the teachings of the church” including “treating everyone equally and with justice” shows that when it comes to the cleaners these are mere pious platitudes.”
Speaking about the upcoming strike action, Magalay Quesda, a migrant from Cuba who works at the school, said the following:
“It was never our intention to go on strike, but I believe that our demands are fair and that anyone with a little empathy can understand where we’re coming from. They have left us no choice. They won’t listen to us, they won’t talk to us, and they won’t treat us fairly so what other choice do we have than to strike if we want to be heard?”
For more information contact Kane Shaw, firstname.lastname@example.org tel. 07749 765264.
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