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.
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.”
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.
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.