LSE Cleaners Point the Way for Imperial War Museums staff

Cleaners at London School of Economics (LSE) have recently won the promise to be taken in-house by LSE from Spring 2018 and have restored equal contractual rights as in-house cleaners. This follows a 10-month campaign, organised notably by their union, United Voices of the World (UVW), of protest and strikes by the cleaners and their student, academic and trade union supporters to restore equal, humane and liveable working conditions – and to oppose harsh workplace retaliation by their employer, Noonan Services. The experiences of LSE’s workers is both a dire warning and example for staff at the Imperial War Museums who are also employed by Noonan.

LSE renewed their cleaning contract with Noonan Services last year, a cleaning and facilities management company originating in Ireland and currently owned by a private equity firm based in Guernsey and London. The result has been the creation of a two-class structure of outsourced cleaners on inferior, precarious and, in some cases, unliveable contractual terms who have alleged harsh disciplinary actions and their right to trade union representation being infringed.

The same two-class system is being implemented by Noonan Services at the Imperial War Museums (IWM), which contracted out its Visitor Services & Security team in 2014. Noonan Services picked up the contract in 2016 after the company that was awarded the £10-11 million contract by IWM – Shield Guarding – went into administration.

Whilst such companies cannot drive down costs immediately be making wholesale changes to contracts, due to Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) – they aim to do this gradually through, as the defunct Shield Group proposed in their bid to IWM: “reduction in staff numbers; the benefits of providing additional staff from their (Shield) reserve and support teams; and the natural turnover in staff will enable them to employ on their terms and not IWM terms.”

Noonan’s cleaners at LSE receive 1% pensions contribution from their employer, whilst in-house staff receive up to a 16% contribution. The outsourced staff receive 28 days paid annual leave, include bank holidays, whilst in-house staff receive 40 days, including bank holidays and university closures. Noonan staff are entitled only to Statutory Sick Pay – the minimum legal amount – which means no sick pay for the first 3 days and then £88.45 per week from the fourth consecutive day.

Restructuring

At the Imperial War Museum, Visitor Services management staff have been paid off by Noonan or the Imperial War Museums to take early retirements or new roles and have either been replaced by staff on lesser contracts or not been replaced at all.

Due to reduced staff numbers and increased workload, LSE’s cleaning staff have complained of physical and psychological distress. A case that is still unresolved at LSE is the 2016 removal of Alba Pasmino by Noonan from the supervisor team after several years’ service, starting as a cleaner. She was given a few days’ notice as numbers were reduced from 18 to 13 roles and redefined as “Team Leaders”.  The campaign to have Alba Pasmino reinstated to her role is ongoing.

An early day House of Commons motion signed by 21 MPs, stated that (with my emphasis in bold):

“this House notes with concern that cleaners who are employed at the London School of Economics (LSE) by the contractor Noonan Services receive inferior terms and conditions to their in-house counterparts in respect of sick pay, pensions and maternity, paternity and adoption leave pay; condemns victimisation by Noonan of members of the cleaning workforce who are members of the trades union United Voices of the World (UVW) and who have taken an active part in the campaign to improve their terms and conditions; is concerned that Noonan and the LSE failed to take action over a serious allegation made by a cleaner and member of UVW of homophobic abuse; is also concerned that Noonan have sought to ban the cleaners’ trades union from representing members of the cleaning staff, an act which infringes on their right to trades union representation; believes that a prestigious and wealthy institution such as the LSE should not have a two-tier workforce, and should properly monitor and hold to account their contractor and intervene where necessary to ensure that cleaners are treated with respect and dignity; and calls on the LSE and Noonan to ensure that the cleaners’ demands in respect of equal terms and conditions, a reduction in workloads, a review of disciplinary procedures and the reinstatement of their colleague Alba Pasmino are met.”

Protest

LSE cleaners’ and their trade unions’ success in pressurising LSE to bring them back in-house was achieved through 10-months of activism that brought together students, academic, wider trade union, public and political support. It was a painful process for the cleaners and close supporters, involving a 7-day strike, arrests at protests and alleged retaliation at work by Noonan. This was conducted by cleaners who were previously earning less than the London Living wage, with no union representation and all from migrant or BAME backgrounds.

Imperial War Museum Visitor Services & Security staff face the same challenges in halting the two-class system and the contractual race to the bottom. Whilst an online petition calling for protection of staff rights and an end to privatisation has achieved 1,191 signatures, so far, the union that represents some staff and published the petition, the Public & Commercial Services Union (PCS) has not succeeded in opposing the changes by the Imperial War Museum or its latest contractor, Noonan.

United Voices of the World

It was the new union, United Voices of the World (UVW) which describes itself as a grass-roots, member-led trade union comprising mostly of migrant workers, that succeeded where the established Unison, which represented some LSE cleaners, had not. When UVW first arrived on the scene in 2016, LSE refused to negotiate with them; however, as the cleaners increasingly turned to UVW and following strike action, LSE relented and entered into negotiations.

Imperial War Museum’s cleaning staff and cafe staff have long been contracted out. The cafe staff work for Sodexo, an international conglomerate, after previous contractor, Peyton & Byrne, went into administration in October 2016. IWM cleaning staff work for a new contractor, Servest, who have recently been awarded a 5-year contract.

Further potential for upheaval is on the horizon for Imperial War Museum staff as Noonan’s owner, Guernsey-based private equity firm, Alchemy Partners, is set to sell the company. Amongst the reported three bidders are Bidvest, a South African conglomerate with businesses in financial services, car sales and freight management and HIG Capital, another private equity firm. Should the deal go through for the expected 170 – 190 million, it will represent a potential 100% mark-up for Alchemy who acquired Noonan for 90 million in 2008.

Further information

View a montage of scenes from the LSE cleaners’/UVW union 7-day strike. Protests for the reinstatement of cleaning supervisor Alba Pasmino continue.

Imperial War Museum – Three years of privatised crisis – Counterfire website.

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Electrical Gaza: Rosalind Nashashibi & the Turner Prize 2017

 

Turner Prize 2017: Rosalind Nashashibi & Electrical Gaza

Two years ago, a UN report warned that Gaza, which is one part of the Occupied Territories, could become uninhabitable by 2020 as a result of lack of infrastructure and services, such as clean water, arising from the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that started in 2007 and the three consecutive military operations that have occurred since (2008, 2012 & 2014). The blockade on construction material is making rebuilding damaged buildings difficult and 75,000 remain internally displaced since the 2014 conflict. Socio-economic conditions are at the lowest point since 1967 with unemployment standing at over 40%. 43% of the 2 million population are children aged 14 years or under.

The Turner Prize 2017 nominated artist, Rosalind Nashashibi – who is of Palestinian-Irish descent – and was born in Croydon, says, ”I think of the Gaza Strip as having been put under a kind of enchantment by the world powers. I’m using terms from an archaic or childish language to allow the extraordinary conditions to show through with all the attendant fear, excitement, suffering and boredom of life under enchantment.”

One of the pieces that Nashashibi has been nominated for is her 18 minute film titled “Electrical Gaza” commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in the UK, which was one of the pieces in her nominated solo California exhibition called On This Island. The film shows everyday life in Gaza, from children playing, a man preparing and eating food, young men washing horses on the coast and market scenes. These scenes were captured in 2014, in the period of the build-up to the most recent outbreak of full-scale violence, during Operation Protective Edge which resulted in the deaths of 1,462 Palestinian civilians and 6 Israeli civilians. There is no distinct linear narrative to the film. Occasionally, it switches to animated depictions of scenes, as if to question the audiences understanding of reality.

The Turner Prize jury said of Nashashibi’s nominated works, which also includes Documenta 14, that “they were impressed by the depth and maturity… which often examines sites of human occupation and the coded relationships that occur within those spaces – whether a family home or garden, a ship or the Gaza Strip. Her films use the camera as an eye to observe moments and events, contrasting reality with moments of fantasy and myth. They show how the intimate and everyday collide with issues of surveillance and control.”

The film, Electrical Gaza, is largely without dialogue or speech, so the viewer must interpret the significance of scenes. The title may be a reference to the shortage of electricity in Gaza. Following a recent dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israel has reduced electricity further and now Gazans receive up to 4 hours of electricity a day at no fixed time. Gaza’s only power plant was closed as a result of running out of fuel, threatening the partial or full closure of essential services in medical facilities and difficulty in treating sewage which is threatening a public health hazard. The crisis was temporarily eased by a supply of diesel from Egypt, pushed through by Hamas through a court order.

A scene in Nashashibi’s film depicting the Gazan coast evokes the maritime restrictions that mean that Gazan fishermen can only sail a maximum of 6 nautical miles from the coast before they will be fired upon by the Israeli navy.

 

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The film all but ends with footage of Gazans waiting at the Rafah Crossing into Egypt in 2014. This is one of three putative ways out of the strip for Gazans and is controlled by Egyptian authorities but it has largely been closed since 2014 since the change in regime in Egypt. The film shows a crowd of men waiting at the gate, hoping that it will open, in many cases, for medical treatment, or to see family in the West Bank or elsewhere.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in April of this year, three patients died awaiting Israeli permits to leave Gaza for medical care – a 5 yr old girl with cerebral palsy, a 53 yr old woman and a 59 yr old man, both cancer patients. Gaza has limited access to chemotherapy drugs and cannot provide radiography at all as radio isotopes are on the list of prohibited imports.

Whilst the British government has publicly criticised Israel’s blockade of Gaza and settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, their actions have often contradicted their words. In May, the World Health Assembly at the UN voted on a decision to mandate the WHO to, “support the development of the health system in the occupied Palestinian territory … with a particular focus on strengthening primary care and integrating mental health services provision into primary care services, as well as on health prevention and integrated disease management.”

The decision passed with a majority but the UK voted against, saying in its explanation: “The WHO is one of the world’s most important technical agencies. It should not be a place where we argue over geopolitics.”

A similar contradiction can be found in the supply of military components to Israel. Soon after the 51-day conflict in Gaza in 2014, the UK agreed a new £4 million military components deal.

Artist, Rosalind Nashashibi says, “Gaza has been closed from the outside. There is a strong feeling of autonomy and activism and a corresponding fatalism and despair, another contradiction- Gazans are set apart from the rest of the world and yet know that their situation is in some way central to it.”

The other Turner Prize nominees are Andrea Buttner (Stuttgart), Lubaina Himid (born in Tanzania and raised in the UK) and Hurvin Anderson (from Birmingham, UK, of Jamaican descent). For the first time since 1990 there is no upper age-limit of 50 to the Prize, enabling Lubaina Himid, who is 63 and Hurvin Anderson, who is 52, to be selected.

An exhibition of work by the shortlisted artists will open at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull on September 26 2017 and the winner will be announced at an award ceremony on December 5. This year, the prize will be awarded on not just the nominated works but, also, the prize show.

Further reading

The shortlist recognises three women, two painters, two over-50s. All have origins or parentage from outside the UK. German artist Andrea Büttner divides her time between London and Stuttgart. Birmingham-born African-Caribbean painter Hurvin Anderson is nominated for a recent show in Toronto; Büttner for exhibitions in LA and Switzerland. Long may this openness continue post-Brexit, when, I predict, art education will go into an even steeper decline, and the current internationalism of the British art world, and cultural life in general, will slide into a marginal provincialism.

Turner Prize 2017: a cosmopolitan rebuff to Brexit and provincialism – Adrian Searle, The Guardian newspaper, 3 May 2017

Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Modern and jury chairman, said: “I think we can safely acknowledge that artists can experience a breakthrough at any age without any risk of the prize becoming a lifetime achievement award. This year’s shortlist is a case in point: two of the four artists on this year’s list are over 50. They all had breakthrough years in 2017.”

The not so Young British Artists: All 2017 Turner Prize nominees are aged over 40: The Daily Telegraph, Anita Singh, 3 May 2017

Audio: Turner Prize 2017: Tate Modern director Alex Farquharson interview