United Voices of the World shows how trade unions can beat back racist outsourcing

United Voices of the World shows how trade unions can beat back racist outsourcing

9 min read

In the face of the colossal loss of life and unprecedented global economic recession, it is almost certain that governments around the world will attempt to dissociate this carnage wrought by and through the Coronavirus pandemic from the neoliberal policies that they have enacted over the past couple of decades. These policies have decimated public services and gravely hampered the ability of states to respond effectively to Coronavirus. After all, the very nature of a virus lends itself to being depicted as something ‘other’, as a brute force of nature which is totally external to society and therefore solely responsible for the adverse economic and social consequences that follow from it.

A related logic of externalisation has been at play in the anti-Chinese racism surrounding the outbreak with Donald Trump’s repeated labelling of the virus as the ‘Chinese Virus’ being one of the more clear-cut cases of othering as a means to distract from an administration’s catastrophic blunders and wilful sacrifice of human lives. Of course, here in the UK the blame game is slightly different. Boris Johnson has taken a no doubt temporary break from his habitually brazen racism to instead adopt a strategy of obfuscation so as to shift blame onto the public, something which, rather worryingly, appears to be working. But none of this is to say that Johnson’s surprising restraint somehow means the unfolding of the pandemic is ‘neutral’ with respect to the racism that structures British society from top to bottom. For it is clear as day that throughout this crisis a number of facts have presented themselves which starkly demonstrate how the risks and costs of this pandemic are not being distributed equally as a result of structural racism.

As a trade unionist working for United Voices of the World (UVW), a trade union specialising in organising low paid, precarious, and migrant workers, I have seen first-hand the effects of this structural racism. Back in April, I reflected on some vitally important research conducted by our comrades at Autonomy, who had just released their brilliant interactive Jobs at Risk Index (JARI). The results of that research were shocking, but also grimly predictable: 22 out of 28 workers in the most-at-risk professions were Key Workers but Key Workers were also the lowest paid workers. Moreover, 77% of workers in High Risk professions are women, with women making up 98% of workers in High Risk professions being paid poverty wages.

But what the research lacked was an analysis of the relationship between risk, ethnicity, and migration status. Through the countless battles waged by UVW against outsourcing companies and the outsourcing industry, we have long recognised and operated on the basis that race and class, or rather, racism and the economy, cannot be dissociated from one another. The UK is the biggest facilities management market in Europe, with an estimated value of £120bn, the industry makes up 8% of UK GDP and employs 10% of the total UK workforce. Facilities management is also an industry which is structurally racist. It is grounded on racism, and by necessity, exacerbates and perpetuates racial inequalities in its pursuit of profit, which is why UVW is currently in the midst of taking a ground-breaking legal challenge against several high-profile clients of some of the largest outsourcing companies in the industry. These clients include the Ministry of Justice, St. George’s University of London, Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the Royal Parks, a charity set up by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport to administer famous London parks belonging to the Queen, such as Hyde Park and St. James’ park.

In all of these workplaces, Black, Asian, and other ethnic minority (BAME) workers and migrant workers are deliberately paid lower wages - usually poverty wages - than their White in-house colleagues. They are often employed on the worst terms and conditions legally possible, receiving no contractual sick pay and being expected to survive on £19.17 a day if they take sick leave. In fact, the Tories’ idea of supporting these workers in the midst of this crisis has been not to overhaul Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), but rather to bring forward the punitive 3-day qualifying period to the first day of absence. In other words, their only concession has been that these workers ought to be able to have their paltry alms a little earlier than normal, a failure that in this pandemic has cost BAME workers their lives.

At the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), cleaner and UVW member Emanuel Gomes, was left with no choice but to come into work despite being visibly sick. He was exhibiting Covid-like symptoms, was feverish, delirious, sweaty, and incoherent. But in the 5 days leading up to his death he worked every day and was forced to take public transport into central London to clean virtually empty offices. He was left without a facemask and made to work in conditions where social distancing was virtually impossible. He worked up to the day he died because he could not afford to take a day off work. And despite being severely and clearly unwell, neither the MoJ nor the contractor called him an ambulance. Instead, he was taken home by a colleague where he would later die alone. He was worked to death for £9.08 an hour.

In the wake of Emanuel’s death, and in spite of the fact that his colleagues took direct action, walking off the job to demand adequate PPE, proper sick pay, an end to poverty wages, and the introduction of a skeleton service to reduce the risk of transmission, his colleagues were slapped in the face with the offer of a 14p pay rise. It was only after repeated national media coverage of Emanuel’s death and the threat of strike action and calls for an investigation that the MoJ decided to partially relent by granting the workers backdated full pay sick pay, but only for Covid related absences. A bitter and partial victory which has come at the cost of a life and which still sees these BAME and migrant workers forced to choose between their health and their home.

One of Emanuel’s colleagues, Fatima Djalo, summed up the callousness of the situation when she said, “We are now going to keep fighting until we win the rest. They made that decision because of the pressure, they have no heart, our life means nothing to those people, we are like rubbish to them, we are never valued there”. As I write, these brave workers have kept up that fight, and are now engaging in a battle for union recognition. But typically, rather than listen to their employees, management has chosen to call in professional union busters to deny them the right to collective bargaining.

In fact, while all of this is taking place, the man who is ultimately responsible for the MoJ’s governance and procurement decisions - Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton - styles himself a ‘Race Champion’ and ally to BAME workers. If you visit his blog, Richard goes to great pains to point out he is pushing for greater diversity and representation of BAME workers in the upper echelons of the civil service. Unfortunately, his allyship does not extend to the BAME workers who literally spend most of their waking lives cleaning up after him and his colleagues. But ultimately, all of this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

At the Royal Parks, an almost exclusively Black and migrant workforce of park attendants from countries including Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, have, since 2014, been paid on average £4,000 less than their in-house colleagues, 90% of whom are White. On top of this, the outsourced workers have had £70,000 worth of annual leave stolen from them by their employer. The reason things like this happen, is because alongside the legal and contractual frameworks which underpin White workers receiving higher wages and better terms and conditions of employment than BAME workers, is that there is also a corresponding culture of racism within the workplace. This culture has manifested itself more brazenly than ever as a result of this crisis and which is also in part a product of the decades long decline in the industrial and political power of the trade union movement. In many workplaces with a high or entirely migrant workforce, and where working conditions are precarious, trade unions are largely non-entities, who have either not been present in those workplaces, or where they have been present, they have struggled to organise the workers. As a consequence bullying thrives and managers break the law with impunity. And why wouldn’t they if they never receive any pushback?

This culture of impunity, and managerial arrogance and racism, has been on vivid display at St. George’s, University of London where management has routinely called the police on an entirely BAME and migrant workforce of outsourced security guards who, before the pandemic, had the temerity to go on strike and to lawfully picket their place of work. The guards were demanding contractual sick pay and to be made direct employees of the university. Yet management decided to respond each and every time by calling the police who would in turn unlawfully break the workers pickets. We know neither management nor the police would countenance doing anything like this if it was the university’s primarily white academic staff on strike.

Indeed, this willingness to call the police on BAME and migrant workers has led to a situation where a colleague of mine was unlawfully arrested and the workers’ routinely threatened with arrest on spurious grounds. While most recently these workers were left with no choice but to walk off the job after they were left without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and their employer had failed to carry out a safety assessment. Workers feared for their safety, a fear which is not unfounded considering security guards are the group of workers most at risk of dying from Coronavirus and that they were being expected to work on the same premises as St. George’s NHS Hospitals Foundation Trust. St. George’s is one of the worst affected NHS Trusts in London where three outsourced cleaners have died and two of whom were BAME and are confirmed to have died from Coronavirus.

But despite taking this action and walking off the job, these brave workers have since been forced back to work because of a lack of contractual sick pay. Of course, I am aware that all of this paints an incredibly bleak picture. One in which workers seem incapable of changing their situation for the better and which gets grimmer when we remember that the catastrophic effects of an unprecedented recession are only being temporarily restrained by a furlough scheme due to shortly expire, and that our government is more than willing to use human lives as a defibrillator to ‘restart’ the UK’s sclerotic economy. But in listing these examples of structural racism, it is vital we do not lose sight of the fact workers have been fighting back.

In fact, those workers at the bottom of the economic pecking order have in many cases been those most willing to take direct action and to push back. This happened most recently when UVW members working as cleaners at Ark Globe Academy, part of the multi-academy Ark Schools network set up by millionaire hedge fund managers, Paul Marshall, Ian Wace, and Arpad Busson, went on a wildcat strike. These workers had suffered months of unlawful wage deductions, many were in rent arrears, they had not been consulted on whether a safety assessment had taken place and they were being expected to clean a school without facemasks and to risk their lives travelling to and from work. So, they had finally had enough and decided to take action. And as sure as night follows day, management swiftly started to take notice of a problem they had long ignored. Because when push comes to shove, the best weapons workers have is each othe and when we take collective action and withdraw our labour we actually give the bosses something they need; a hard dose of reality reminding them that they do not hold all of the cards, which is why we have to be organised. In this particular case, the Ark contractor actually went as far as to offer the workers facemasks in exchange for them leaving UVW. The fact management felt able to unlawfully bribe workers with PPE in exchange for them leaving their trade union shows us just how big a mountain we, as a movement, have left to climb in turning the tables on the bosses.

But in times of crisis and organisational disarray, it is always worth reflecting on the simple truths to find a way forward. One of those simple truths is that the United Voices of the World (UVW), along with our sister union, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), has shown that structural racism can be challenged and the plague of outsourcing beaten back. UVW has shown that migrant workers have power and that not only are they ready to fight back but that when they do fight back they can not only win big themselves, but also for hundreds, if not thousands, of other workers. Now, when workers are facing one hell of a fight, it is the tried and tested methods of bold direct action, mass picketing, and worker led decision making that we need to see replicated across the board.