Home | Friday 19th June 2009 | Issue 680
Immigration Trap Set for University Cleaners
Early last Friday (12th) morning nine sub-contracted cleaners at the University of London’s School of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) were summoned to an ‘emergency staff meeting’. They were met by twenty riot-gear-clad immigration officers who detained the cleaners and took them into detention. The following Monday morning, at an emergency demo, around 40 university activists took matters into their own hands and occupied the university director’s office.
The cleaners meanwhile, who were all from Latin America, were being interrogated by immigration police without legal representation, union support and possibly even interpreters. One suffered a heart attack while in detention and was denied medical assistance and even water. Another was six months pregnant.
Six of the cleaners have already been deported and one who is still in detention is due to be deported in the coming days. The two that were released have gone into hiding.
The timing of the raid comes after a recent victory for the ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign which ensured the SOAS cleaners would receive the London ‘Living Wage’ of £7.20 an hour, improved working conditions and the right to union representation. The campaign was established in 2007 by activists working with the University and College Union (UCU), the Student Union and the trade union Unison, when it came to light that a group of SOAS cleaners had not been paid for over three months by the company contracted to clean the university, ISS. The campaign has spread to other campuses including Birkbeck and the London School of Tropical Medicine.
ISS, however, weren’t so keen on having properly paid workers with rights and representation. Shortly after the victory one worker and leading activist in the campaign, Jose Bermudez - known as ‘Stalin’ (not, we are assured, because of his fondness for gulags and rewriting history) - was sacked.
Angry not only about the raid, but also the complicity of the SOAS management in permitting the raid to take place and not forewarning the cleaners, the occupiers issued a list of demands. As well as calling for the release of the detainees and the prevention of their deportation, the return of the deportees, as well as the re-instatement of ‘Stalin’ , they also demanded, amongst other things, that all contract staff be brought in-house; that no further immigration raids take place and that the SOAS management complicit in facilitating the raid be brought to account.
The university authorities responded with threats and intimidation, preventing anyone from entering the building and threatening the occupiers with the police. They also attempted to serve them with an injunction, although it wouldn’t have come into action until the 22nd. The activists countered the aggressive response and maintained pressure on the management with a live blog, garnering support and publicising exactly what they - and the SOAS management - were doing.
An agreement was finally struck on Wednesday afternoon after what the activists described as “intense and complicated” negotiations. In the final agreement the SOAS management made a number of concessions: They agreed to petition the Home Secretary for exceptional leave to remain for the cleaner who is still being detained and the return of those deported. They also agreed to hold discussions with ISS, UCU, UNISON and the Students’ Union to review the immigration raids, for the issue of outsourced cleaning to be raised at the next Governing Body meeting and for an amnesty for all those involved. In addition to this the management agreed to hold talks with other heads of universities about the wider implications of the government’s policy on immigration.
Campaigner Clare Solomon who was involved in the occupation told SchNEWS that aside from providing critical support to the cleaners the outcome was important because it had sparked academic debate on the issue which could be used to pressure the Governing Body. She said that the next meeting would raise crucial questions as to “who (the university) is run by and for whose benefit”.
* See http://freesoascleaners.blogspot.com