The LSE cleaners are everyday heroes

Louisa Acciari, a PhD student at the LSE Gender Institute, writes on the LSE cleaners and their fight for equality and dignity. Louisa's thesis looks at the mobilisation of domestic workers in Brazil and their organisation into trade unions. She is an editor of  Engenderings - The LSE Gender Institute blog.

On Wednesday 15 March, I woke up at 4am to be at the LSE at 5:45 and form the picket line together with the cleaners on strike. I took a night bus where the few scattered passengers were all migrant workers, on their way to clean big shops on Oxford Street. The strike went on for two days, to demand equal terms and conditions with in-house LSE staff on the following points: sick pay, maternity/paternity/adoption leave, annual leave and pension contributions. After 48 hours of strike action, two days of waking up at 4am and standing outside for 12 hours, I was exhausted. But I did it for only two days; the cleaners, on the other hand, do it every single day.

They all wake up around 4am to start their shift at the LSE at 6am, and ensure that everything is clean and tidy for us, students and staff, when we arrive hours later on campus. They clean before we get in and after we leave. They all do this physically exhausting job at unsocial hours for less than £10 an hour, and very little recognition.

Because they are outsourced to the cleaning company Noonan, they do not enjoy the same working terms and conditions as everyone else at the LSE. Yet, their labour is so vital to the smooth running of the school. None of us would be able to work or study without them; indeed, our ‘productivity’ would be severely decreased if we had to do the cleaning ourselves or if this task was not done at all. Have you ever stopped to think what an entire day without having the toilets cleaned and the bins changed would be like at the LSE?

The cleaners are also all migrants and BME; and many of them are women. Precarity often has a gender and a colour. Keeping the cleaners outsourced and with fewer working rights only serves to reinforce structural inequalities and the exploitation of migrant people. Like one of them said during the strike: “It’s like you’re a pay as you go person. When you come to work, you get paid. When you don’t, you don’t. When I’m sick, I’m forced to come to work. How am I going to pay my rent?”

Can anyone inside the LSE or Noonan seriously argue that these workers do not deserve the same sick pay, maternity pay, pensions, or paid holiday everyone else? Mildred Simpson, one of the leaders of the movement, is over 60 years old. She has been working at the LSE for 16 years. She has back pain and a swollen knee because of the hard physical conditions under which she works. But she cannot afford to stop working as she has no sick leave, and she would lose too much money.

The cleaners are angry and tired of being treated as second class workers. This is why they joined United Voices of the World (UVW) and demanded dignity and equality. After 8 months of trying and failing to get the LSE to listen they were finally left with no choice but to go on strike for 48 hours. And they are ready to do it again.

I am shocked by the way the LSE and Noonan are treating them, and I never expected to find this type of exploitation being produced within my own university. All they want is dignity and respect. I urge the LSE and its cleaning contractor to think less about profit and their public image, and more about the human beings they employ. Our cleaners are everyday life heroes; they deserve our admiration for the work they do and their strength to fight collectively for their rights.