Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies, (SOAS) in central London went into occupation on Tuesday June 13 in support of catering workers and facilities at the university. Susan Moore reports:
Mid-June is not a time you might expect occupations given that exams and teaching are over for many until the autumn. Perhaps that was what was in the mind of catering company Elior when they informed staff in one to one meetings on June 12 that the refectory would close from August 1. Those workers that are on zero hours contracts would be made redundant. Permanent staff will be moved to hospitality, where their jobs will be at risk because of overstaffing of those services.
This announcement was made without any prior consultation of staff, union officials or the people that use the refectory: students, staff, academics, and visitors.
There was another thing about the timing of the announcement – it coincided with the anniversary of a previous brutal attack on workers at SOAS.
In 2009 all cleaning staff were called into an early-morning meeting at SOAS, locked into a Lecture Theatre (G2), and handed over to immigration officers. In total, 9 workers were handcuffed in the lecture theatre, put in UK Border Agency vans and deported. June 12 has since become a day of commemoration at SOAS in remembrance those who were deported, and in condemnation of this crime that SOAS was complicit in.
As the first statement from the occupation states: “With utmost disrespect, SOAS Management have decided to pick this date to announce that the Main Building Refectory will be permanently shut on 1st August 2017, leading to redundancies, job insecurity, anxiety amongst catering staff and the wider SOAS community”.
At SOAS, as at many other universities throughout Britain, the conditions of workers vary enormously. Many staff, especially in catering and cleaning are not employed directly by the colleges themselves but by private companies such as Elior. When zero hours contracts are mentioned, it’s important to understand that these are widespread in what used to be the public sector; where outsourcing has increasingly spread its poisonous tentacles.
Activists have been campaigning at SOAS and beyond to end these iniquities. In other establishments such as the London School of Economics there have been recent victories for cleaners. But demands for an end to zero hours contracts and an end to outsourcing on this campus have been treated with contempt by management.
Solidarity protests in support of the occupation have been taking place since the students took the management suite on Tuesday. On Thursday night for example dozens gathered to hear the occupiers speak to us through the windows, while on Friday there was a solidarity party. The two main campus trade unions, UCU and UNISON as well as the Students Union have been supportive
On Thursday as well as talking about their own struggle and the constant shenanigans of management, there was a powerful message of solidarity – and a minutes silence – for the residents of Grenfell Tower.
You can see when future actions are planned here.
Demands of the SOAS occupation:
- No cuts, no closures, no redundancies. We demand that SOAS keeps the Main Building Refectory open and commits to no redundancies for either full time staff or those on zero hours contracts in the refectory and catering/hospitality services.
- All workers must have fair contracts, including:
- Equal sick pay, holiday pay, pensions with in-house staff;
- End zero-hour contracts, with a fair and just alternative;
- End outsourcing by bringing all current staff in-house now.
- The future of the refectory and catering services must be decided with the full participation of staff and students. We demand that SOAS commit to a fully participatory consultation with the SOAS community to improve the catering services and refectory, and deliver a service that reflects the needs and ethos of the catering staff and the wider SOAS community.
- All workers must be remunerated in full, at the London Living Wage or above. As SOAS Management is contractually obliged to, and has previously agreed to with UNISON: the catering staff currently owed up to £4,000 each in unpaid wages must be paid in full with no adverse impact on their current wages.
- Valerie Amos must issue a public apology on behalf of Senior Management for the atrocious treatment of workers in this ordeal.