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Employment

‘We’re the bedrock of every industry’: Cleaners launch outsourcing protest

Cleaners who have kept the public transport network running throughout the pandemic will demonstrate outside parliament on Tuesday demanding better working conditions and an end to outsourcing.

Cleaners who have worked to keep public transport running throughout the pandemic head to parliament on Tuesday to stand against outsourcing and gain the “respect they deserve”.

More than 30 cleaning operations on railway franchises have been outsourced during the pandemic, according to The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). The union has warned the practice leaves cleaners on low wages while overworked and understaffed, lacking basic rights such as sick pay.

Bella Fashola, who has worked for Churchill cleaning services on Southern Railways trains for four and a half years, joined cleaners demonstrating in Westminster.

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She told The Big Issue that cleaners working on the railways are at risk of catching Covid-19 but have to rely on statutory sick pay (SSP) – up to £96.35 per week – if they fall ill. It can leave them struggling to get by.

“I think it’s important, with us coming out of the pandemic now, to highlight the role that cleaners have played,” said the 25-year old, from Hastings. “Even before the pandemic, cleaners were the bedrock of every industry, every company out there, and I don’t feel that we get the appreciation and respect that we should.

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“We should all be in-house. These companies, especially on the railway, can’t make money or a profit unless they start cutting into people’s health and safety and attacking their terms and conditions.

“I’m on minimum wage, I don’t get paid breaks. If I’m off I have to go on SSP, which isn’t fair when I’m working in an environment where I’m likely to contract every illness or sickness that’s going around.”

Bella was also given the option of taking unpaid sabbatical leave when she was required to shield at the end of 2020 to care for her mother after she was diagnosed with cancer.

She would not have been put in that position if workers were in-house rather than outsourced to agencies and brought in on cleaning contracts, she said. 

“I just want to highlight that all cleaners in every industry deserve to be in-house. We deserve respect. We do one of the dirtiest jobs out there,” added Bella.

“I feel we do the most important job there is on the railway, but we get treated the worst.”

Almost half of the cleaners working on the public transport network don’t think they have enough staff to do their jobs properly, according to a RMT survey.

Meanwhile, one third of cleaners said the number of staff doing the job had fallen in the last three years. One in five reported that numbers had fallen since the pandemic began.

Myab*, who has been a cleaner on the London Underground since 2006 – which has been under US outsourcing giant ABM since 2017 – fears staff coming into work with Covid-19 as a result of the reliance of SSP and low wages.

In the past, he told The Big Issue, he has been forced to return to work prematurely. Six years ago, Myab was signed off work for eight weeks by a doctor following a stomach operation, but had to come back into work early because he couldn’t make ends meet.

“I took the risk after two weeks to return to work while I had 48 stitches in my body and I ended up lying down on the sofa in the break room in agony,” he said.

“Most people can have corona [virus], they can have a cold, they can have any kind of sickness and afford to stay off. As a cleaner we can’t afford to stay at home. Because if you stay home and you have bills to pay and you have kids to look after, how can you survive?”

Although Myab receives the London Living Wage of £10.85 an hour, he insists the money is not enough to justify a job where he has felt unsafe throughout the pandemic.

Outsourcing has failed and it’s time to chuck it in the dustbin, bring cleaners in house and integrate them properly into the public transport workforceMick Lynch, RMT general secretary

Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary

Last week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that levels of pay were not enough for millions of workers, even if they earned a living wage and worked full-time.

“I never feel safe. Personally, I never stopped for one day during the pandemic.  When you get a positive case, we are the first people to go into the contaminated areas or offices to get in and do the job. We get no extra payment or no paid overtime for this,” added Myab.

“We need paid sick days. If a cleaner risks going into work and bringing sickness with them, that means they will infect all the drivers and all the staff within the contract.”

A Transport for London spokesperson told The Big Issue that workers on the transport network “continute to do an amazing job in these challenging times” while an ABM spokesperson added: Our team members have a vital role in keeping the London Underground clean and the work they have done throughout the pandemic has been and continues to be exemplary.”

TFL added that London Mayor Sadiq Khan had asked the transport authority review its cleaning contract with ABM and differences in cost between insourcing and outsourcing will form part of the review.

As Covid-19 restrictions lift in England and ease around the rest of the UK, workers are being encouraged to move back to offices with the daily commute set to return to public transport in the coming months. 

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said now was the time for rail companies to back cleaners who have kept the network running throughout Covid-19.

“The treatment of cleaners in this country is a disgrace,” said Lynch. They’re paid a pittance, overworked, treated like second class citizens and all because it was assumed it was ok to hand them over to private companies to try to make a buck out of them. It’s taken a pandemic to show just how wrong that was.

“I’ve been banging on about this for years and it’s something I feel very passionate about. Outsourcing has failed and it’s time to chuck it in the dustbin, bring cleaners in house and integrate them properly into the public transport workforce.”

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group told The Big Issue the railway network is currently adapting to reduced passenger numbers during the pandemic.

“Like any industry hit by the pandemic we face tough choices, we have to adapt and we want to retain as many jobs as we can. As part of this work, we’re engaging with the unions to review cleaning arrangements and understand the trade offs involved in bringing these contracts in house while maintaining the current levels of cleanliness and flexibility,” the spokesperson said.

*name changed

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