Report from the Public Talk "Precarious Work ..."

At a packed meeting trade union activists, Latin American solidarity campaigners and immigrant rights organisations came together to discuss how to build solidarity with Latin American workers in Britain who are organising for trade union rights at work. Dave Esterson reports....

Over 50 people packed into a meeting in South London to discuss how to take forward the current campaigns of immigrant workers getting organised in their workplace.

The meeting was organised by London NoBorders, the Latin American Workers Association along with other activists in the Campaign Against Immigration Controls and the Bolivia and Colombia solidarity campaigns.

There were four main speakers – three workers currently organising for trade union rights in their workplaces and one from the CAIC.
The first speaker, Julio Mayor, is one of five workers sacked by the company Amey plc. Julio is member of Prospect and Unite. These workers have been accused of bringing the company into disrepute but their real crime is they organised the cleaners to fight for better wages and conditions.
Julio described how Amey were contracted by the National Physical Laboratory to do the cleaning work. Originally there were 36 Latin American cleaners. When Amey took over the contract at NPL the cleaners were paid £7.10 per hour. The company were surprised at this rate of pay and so attempted to get rid of those workers contracted at this rate of pay. Their first act was to reduce the levels of staffing. When the workers resisted the company responded using intimidation. On one occasion the workers were invited to a health and safety training session. Once in the room 60 police and immigration officers entered. Some of the workers did not have the papers needed to work and have since been deported.
But this did not deter the other workers who knew their rights and continued to show a tremendous spirit of solidarity and courage. The workers decided to inform their fellow workers, and trade unionists, who worked directly for NPL, about what was happening to them. For the crime of exposing the terrible working conditions of Amey’s workforce five were suspended. The fight now goes on to get them reinstated (see below).
The next speaker, Alberto, works in a bank which hires Lancaster cleaning company. The cleaners in this company decided to organise in Unite. When the management first met a delegation of the workers they threatened to sack them and bring in new workers. The managers said they would consider giving the pay rise demanded but only if they could cut costs by transferring three of the workers to another workplace. The Unite official present in the meeting recommended to the representatives that they accept this as it was the best offer they could get. The delegation refused to give an answer saying they would take it back to a mass meeting of the workers.
The mass meeting unanimously decided that they would not agree to a single worker being transferred. Instead the workers decided to organise a protest outside the bank. Unfortunately some officials of Unite spent more effort trying to convince the workers to postpone the demonstration rather than organise it. Eventually the workers decided to press ahead with their action – with or without the union. When Alberto heard about the struggle at Amey he contacted the workers there who gave advice and encouraged them to go ahead with their campaign. Eventually the demonstration went ahead despite the workers being fearful of what might happen. After pressure from the workers Unite agreed to loan the workers T-shirts and a megaphone for the protest and one of the Unite officials attended. The demonstration was a success and when the workers sent a letter to the management (signed by all the workers) saying more protests would follow the company’s attitude changed. The head of HR along with another senior manager met a delegation of the workers and agreed to the pay rise, nervously asking if the workers were happy.
Robinson, a cleaner at the University of London who works for OCS service company, and a member of Unison and Unite described how their struggle had been a long process. Initially the workers had felt scared and isolated. So they agreed collectively to try and overcome this every day – to build up an atmosphere of solidarity. They started with a film showing of Bread and Roses to show all the workers that it was possible for them to get organised.
From this a committee was elected to lead the fight for their rights. When the management attempted to intimidate the workers, including using dirty tricks like not paying some of them for two or three months, the cleaners asked for support from all the university workers and students. The campaign has been successful as they won a pay rise to £7.45 and trade union recognition. But this has not been without cost as one worker remains suspended without pay and needs support and solidarity.
The speaker from CAIC made the point that all of these situations are very similar where people don’t actually work for the company where they work but for contractors. He also pointed out that the immigration laws were being specifically used to stop workers from organising.
After the speakers there was a general discussion. One question raised was whether we could support the demands for regularisation as there is a new campaign called Papers Please! But it seemed that this campaign accepts the government needs to have immigration controls and that the government should be able to decide who is worthy of getting papers and who isn’t. The speaker from the floor asked what did the workers need, what kind of regularisation did they want.
Another asked what the role of the trade unions had been. Two of the speakers were very critical of how the unions had behaved during their campaigns with one saying the union had been an observer rather than an organiser and the other pointing out that their union had been more obstructive than helpful and that it was really down to the workers to organise themselves. One speaker from the floor commented on how, since coming over from Latin America, he had observed how bureaucratic the trade unions in Britain are and that it was easier to talk to the prime minister than to talk to a general secretary of a union! The chair summed up the meeting asking those present to support any future actions and the campaigns of the workers and commented that despite having criticisms of the union we aren’t anti-union, that people should get organised and join a trade union but that ultimately we are the union.