Yesterday morning the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) director's office occupied by students and supporters in protest against detention of 9 University cleaners, who had recently won living wage representation in a dawn raid on Friday (June 12).
Five have already been deported, and the others could face deportation within days. One has had a suspected heart attack and was denied access to medical assistance and even water. One was over 6 months pregnant. Many have families who have no idea of their whereabouts.
The cleaners won the London Living Wage and trade union representation after a successful “Justice for Cleaners” campaign that united workers of all backgrounds and student activists. Many believe the raid is managers’ “revenge” for the campaign.
Immigration officers were called in by cleaning contractor ISS, even though it has employed many of the cleaners for years. Cleaning staff were told to attend an ‘emergency staff meeting’ at 6.30am on Friday.
This was used as a false pretext to lure the cleaners into a closed space from which the immigration officers were hiding to arrest them.
More than 40 officers were dressed in full riot gear and aggressively undertook interrogations and then escorted them to the detention centre. Neither legal representation nor union support were present due to the secrecy surrounding the action. Many were unable to communicate let alone fully understand what was taking place due to the denial of interpreters.
SOAS management were complicit in the immigration raid by enabling the officers to hide in the meeting room beforehand and giving no warning to them.
The cleaners were interviewed one by one. They were allowed no legal or trade union representation, or even a translator (many are native Spanish speakers).
The cleaners are members of the Unison union at SOAS. They recently went out on strike (Thursday 28 May) to protest the sacking of cleaner and union activist Jose Stalin Bermudez.
The occupation has issued a list of demands to SOAS management:
1. We call on the directorate to request the secretary of state to immediately release the detainees and to prevent the deportation of the three cleaners who are still in detention in the UK.
2. For the directorate to release a public statement condemning what has happened to the SOAS cleaners and calling for their immediate release and return.
3. To campaign for the return of the cleaners who have already been deported.
4. To bring all contract staff in house. SOAS should not use contractors, ISS or others.
5. To keep immigration officers from entering campus under ANY circumstances or other forms of collaboration with immigration or police. Universities are for education not for state violence and oppression.
6. A year's wage as reparations for all detained and deported staff.
7. To hold accountable SOAS managers who were complicit in facilitating the raid and detention of the cleaners, refusing to aid a sick worker and a pregnant woman.
8. To reinstate Jose Stalin Bermudez, the SOAS UNISON branch chair.
9. To respect the right to organise in Trade Unions unimpeded.
10. To provide space and resources for a public meeting to build support for the SOAS 9 and other migrants, in education and beyond, affected by immigration control and racism.
11. Amnesty for all those involved.
One of the detained cleaners stated, “We’re honest people not animals. We are just here to earn an honest living for our families. SOAS management are being unfair.”
The same tactic has been widely used against undocumented migrants in low paid jobs. The fact is that the private sector companies that bid for sub-contracting tenders in the service sector rely on employing people on minimum wages (and even below that if they can get away with it, as they often do) at unsociable hours. And the people that tend to go for these are undocumented workers who can get no other work. The companies know this and employ them specifically because they are marginalised and vulnerable; ripe for exploitation as they cannot stick up for their rights. And when they dare to do just that, these companies feel no qualms about turning the workers into the UKBA, just as the cleaning contractor ISS did with tube cleaners in their employ when they went on strike, with the result that key activists were deported. This is the use of immigration law for union busting.