Hundreds of track cleaners employed by Churchill Group at Govia Thameslink Railway, HS1, Southeastern Railway and Eurostar have voted for industrial action to fight for better pay and conditions.
The cleaners, members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, are demanding £15 an hour, plus sick pay and travel allowances currently denied to outsourced workers.
Around 1,000 outsourced cleaners were elected by the RMT, sending a clear call to action – two of the ballots recorded a 100% strike vote. Cleaners are only paid £8.91 an hour, far less than in-house cleaners who fulfill the same role. Churchill has refused to raise wages, despite making profits of £11.1million last year and dividends of £12million to his parent company and £3.8million to directors of the company.
During the pandemic, cleaners braved dangerous conditions to protect the public from infection. But the outsourced cleaners were paid a pittance and were even denied sick pay. They have faced the prospect of massive debt or even losing their home if they catch COVID-19. The strike vote demonstrates that the cleaners have had enough and recognize that their demands can only be met through struggle.
As the pandemic enters its third year, workers are seeking to reverse decades of wage cuts. Inflation is rising at its highest rate in 30 years and should exceed 7% in the spring. Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, last week demanded “painful” wage moderation.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said of last week’s polling results: “Churchill and cleaning employers across the industry need to pay close attention to this outcome…our members have shown fantastic collective resolve in breaking through the Tory ballot thresholds, so the ball is in Churchill’s court.”
Lynch’s response gives the initiative to the company. Churchill’s cleanups cannot trust the RMT to fight their fight. The union has been working to isolate a series of contractor disputes in recent weeks, including strikes by DHL caterers at Avanti West Coast and rail cleaners employed by Atalian Servest.
Around 300 cleaners employed by Atalian Servest at Avanti West Coast Trains went on strike last month, rejecting an insulting 0.2% wage offer of an extra 80p a week. Cleaners are among the lowest paid workers on the railways, earning around £270 a week. They stopped their work for 48 hours on January 20. Atalian Servest is a multinational based in France with an annual turnover of 3 billion euros. It provides a range of services including cleaning, technical maintenance and facility management, and employs 27,000 people at 7,000 sites in the UK.
Atalian Servest covers Avanti West Coast Trains, Chiltern Railways, London North Eastern Railway and Great Western Railway (GWR) and is a leading provider of cleaning services on the UK rail network. Its contract with GWR is the largest, covering 102 stations. In 2016, Servest cleaners at GWR went on strike over severe harassment and allegations of discrimination, poor working conditions and low wages.
Despite all its denunciations of pandemic profiteers, the RMT refused to confirm its own wage demand at Servest. A union press release noted: ‘The holding company of Atalian Servest Ltd has paid a dividend to its French parent company of £10.8m, a sum which would pay more than 300 cleaners for a pay rise at £11 an hour 12 times more and £15 an hour three times more. But beyond this hypothetical calculation, the union gave no indication of its own line in the sand. A pay rise to £11 an hour for Servest workers would amount to just £10 more per day. Servest workers should demand full pay parity and the same benefits as their internal colleagues, including sick pay, pension contributions, annual leave and free train travel.
No follow-up call for industrial action at Servest was made. There are no updates on the dispute on the RMT website and the union’s media office declined to confirm whether RMT officials were negotiating with the company. The RMT has made no calls for joint action with Churchill workers or with thousands of internal cleaners at 28 rail operating companies targeted by the Johnson government’s Rail Industry Recovery Group (RIRG).
The RMT is an active partner in the RIRG which was launched by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to cut £2billion a year and oversee the biggest restructuring of the national railways since privatization in 1994. The unions RMT, ASLEF, Unite and TSSA approved Enabling Framework Agreements (EFAs) with rail employers last June, including a code of mutual respect committing the parties to keep their plans against rail workers secret.
Despite the clear aim of the RIRG as a battering ram against jobs, wages and pensions, the RMT favorably cited the EFA’s promise to “carry out a review and benchmarking exercise” of cleaning companies and outsourced catering to determine if they should be integrated. -accommodate. In-house cleaners currently earn between £24,000 and £30,000 a year before tax depending on shift assignment. But some earn as little as £14,900 a year before tax. Given the scale of the Conservative government’s cost-cutting demands, in-house cleaners must recognize the potential threat to their own jobs and support struggling contractors.
A railway cleaner from South West England told the WSWS: “When people think of cleaners, the image of someone using a cleaning cloth, feather duster or vacuum cleaner often comes to mind. mind, but the daily reality is quite different.
“Railroad cleaners deal with biohazards such as raw sewage from blocked and overflowing toilets, safe disposal of drug paraphernalia such as syringes, used condoms, blood, sanitary products, vomit , discarded COVID masks, test kits and used tissues. Cleaners are sometimes responsible for removing dead animals struck by trains and for removing blood from the exterior of trains. Removing graffiti and spray paint is also a common task.
“Sewage tanks under trains are often blocked and require air to be pumped into them to move the blockage. It’s our job to clean that up. Contract cleaners typically struggle with a lack of protective gear and are forced to borrow or beg for gloves, masks and raincoats to get the job done. employees directly by rail operating companies are offered free hepatitis vaccination and are given full protection against the disease, but contractors are denied such benefits, including free train travel to and from work.
In June 2021, the RMT published a report, “Cleaning Up the Railways”, exposing the unsafe conditions of outsourced cleaning companies during the pandemic. He revealed that “nearly half of the cleaners working on the network do not think they have enough staff to do their job properly”. A third of cleaners said their numbers had fallen over the past three years, while one in five said the figure had fallen since the start of the pandemic. The cleaners saw their employers as putting profits ahead of public health.
The privatization of the railways carried out between 1994 and 1997 opened the floodgates to outsourcing with little resistance from the unions. The use of subcontractors allowed newly privatized rail operators to reduce wages and working conditions, creating a two-tiered workforce. Rail unions are calling for outsourced cleaning and catering to be brought in-house. But external and internal cleaners face a growing threat to conditions, wages and pensions.
Railway cleaners employed directly by railway companies cannot sit idly by. The struggle at Churchill and Atalian Servest needs maximum support. With billions of pounds in cuts planned by the Johnson government, the drive to outsource more jobs is real. This is why all railway workers must unite by forming rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions, to organize the response. The subordination of workers’ livelihoods to corporate profit must end.
The WSWS invites railroad cleaners to Contact us with any information about your conditions and your struggle.