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Now is the time for hope—it's the bosses who should be scared.

by Cetin Avsar, Cyril Hawken, Kazi Ullah, Yomi Shittu, Dennis Darboh, Yusef Outtara and Dexter Ncube / April 4, 2020

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Outsourced BAME and migrant workers at SGUL are preparing to launch a landmark legal action against their employers. Here, they tell us why we should all support them. 1109 words / 5 min read

As COVID-19 ravages through Europe, we—a group of BAME and migrant workers working as security guards at St. George’s, University of London (SGUL)—have noticed something. The government and the bosses who do so much to ignore us, are now finally having to admit—albeit rather reluctantly—to something they’ve long tried to convince us isn’t true: that they need us. That we, the ‘unskilled’ workers, the security guards, the delivery drivers, the supermarket cashiers and the cleaners, are the ones who keep the wheels of the UK’s economy turning.

This may sound paradoxical, especially amidst mass layoffs and the government’s inadequate Coronavirus Job Retention scheme—a scheme which our union, United Voices of the World (UVW), has rightly described as ‘having more holes in it than Swiss cheese’. But in spite of this, we know, as workers fighting through direct action, strike action, and soon, legal action, that poverty pay, and atrocious terms and conditions, aren’t the result of brute necessity, but of political choices made by the government and business. 

And as catastrophic as this pandemic is, having already left behind thousands of devastated families, and no doubt on course to leave behind it many more, we nonetheless believe there is reason for hope. 

The emergency measures being taken by the Tories—inadequate as they are—are, at the very least, forcing the architects of austerity to finally admit that whilst there may be no ‘magic money tree’, there most definitely is a printing press. Millions of workers up and down the country are finally glimpsing—and we use the word glimpse pointedly—the possibility that things can change, that things can be different.

But, as workers, and as a movement, we must not be complacent. We know from our own experience of taking strike action at SGUL, where we’ve been fighting for occupational sick pay and to be made direct employees of the university, rather than being outsourced on atrocious terms and conditions to Bidvest Noonan, that bosses will do anything and everything in their power to avoid even negotiating with their employees, let alone conceding to their demands.

We learnt this the hard way, when SGUL management repeatedly called the police to unlawfully break every single one of our strikes, which on one occasion led to the unlawful arrest of our friend Franck Magennis, then Head of Legal at UVW. And we ourselves have been threatened with arrest on multiple occasions, every time on the most ludicrous of grounds—and all for having had the temerity to exercise our legal and human right to picket at our place of work.

Every time this has happened it also hasn’t been lost on us that if it were our largely white and British academic counterparts on strike, management would show a very different level of willingness to call the police on them. 

But what we’ve also learnt is that the low wages and atrocious working conditions which have become a mainstay of the UK economy—conditions which the pundit class and politicians are now finally, grudgingly having to admit are far from ideal—can’t be separated from the racism inherent within the economy, and upon which the UK has become dependent.

These were hard lessons for us to learn, but in the process, we’ve also learnt something which gives us hope and which drives our struggle onward. We have learnt that we should not be scared. In fact, we now know it’s the bosses who are scared—why else would they resort to intimidation, bullying and disciplinary procedures? They fear us taking collective action.

They’re not afraid us of because we’re greedy workers putting these well-meaning souls in an impossible situation by demanding what they cannot pay, but would simply love to give. No, it is precisely because they can pay that they fear us. In the case of SGUL we know this to be true, not simply because it can afford to pay its Principal, Professor Jenny Higham, the exorbitant sum of £245,938 per year. Nor even because it has consistently reported strong income and financial reserves. Instead, we know this that is true because our union obtained a copy of a report commissioned by SGUL in 2015/16 which found that the university would save £200,000+ per year by insourcing us and all its other outsourced ‘ancillary’ workers. The same report also stated that this insourcing was the preferred option for restructuring services at SGUL.

We know what you’re thinking—if the university could save money by in-housing us, why hasn’t it done so already? This is where the fear comes in. The university thinks that if we’re given the same pay and terms and conditions as SGUL staff, we’ll then go on to demand more. And this way of thinking isn’t confined to St. George’s. It’s rife across the entire country and the entire economy. 

To keep us in our ‘place’—to keep all workers in their ‘place’—bosses try to make us docile and grateful for the crumbs they throw our way; and when we resist, they adopt the most punitive measures possible to discourage us and other workers from ever demanding more. The COVID-19 crisis has laid all this bare by brutally bringing to light how successive governments have, over a period of decades, used the law as a weapon to drive our rights as workers to the barest of minimums. But we believe that, with our union, we are on the verge of turning the table against the bosses.

Once this crisis subsides, we will be taking legal action against SGUL. This will be a landmark case where we will argue that the effects—and therefore not the explicit intention—of outsourcing at SGUL amounts to indirect racial discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. As a group of entirely BAME and migrant workers, we are being subject to significantly inferior levels of pay (we earn less than the lowest paid SGUL employee) and terms and conditions (for example, SGUL employees get pension contributions of 16%, whilst we only get 2%) than SGUL employees. 

If we were to win this case, and we have every confidence that we will, the consequences for the 3.3 million outsourced workers across the UK would be life-changing. For it is usually the migrants and the BAME workers who bear the brunt of poverty pay and atrocious terms and conditions upon which outsourcing relies. And while this systematic driving-down of rights, pay and conditions affects us most of all, it also affects all other workers, in varying degrees. But we’ve had enough.

We won’t be giving up, we won’t be going away, and we will not stand by silently in the face of racism and abuse. We will fight until we have dignity and respect.


Author:

Cetin Avsar, Cyril Hawken, Kazi Ullah, Yomi Shittu, Dennis Darboh, Yusef Outtara and Dexter Ncube

The authors are a group of BAME and migrant workers who work as outsourced security guards at St George’s, University of London. Along with their union, United Voices of the World, they have been engaging in militant action against their bosses, demanding fair pay and conditions and justice for themselves and all workers.