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Monday, 11 November 2013

Solidarity with the 3 Cosas Campaign

’ One of the most fantastic militant and brave even campaigns I’m following and giving support to right now is the 3 Cosas Campaign which is made up of mainly low paid immigrant workers who speak little English but have organised themselves from the bottom up and deserve our support. Cleaners, porters, security guards, catering staff, and other support staff at the University of London administrative offices (in Senate House and central academic buildings) and student resident halls are employed by private contractors. In September 2011 many of these workers earned just above the national minimum wage, hardly enough to live on in London. After months of campaigning led by activist workers they managed to secure the London Living Wage (£8.55) as a basic minimum hourly rate. Inspired by this success the same group of activist workers went on to launch the “3Cosas Campaign” (Spanish for “three things”) in November 2012; the demands: the same sick pay, holiday pay, and pensions that other University employees enjoy. According to a number of the stewards the leadership said that they tacitly support the demands but that the campaign would need to be led by the outsourced workers themselves as the branch leadership was “too busy”. The workers duly did this, set up weekly meetings, and begun planning, recruiting and publicising the campaign. The campaign plan and budget was brought to a union branch meeting for endorsement on 4 November 2012. It was at this point that smouldering tensions between the union branch leadership and activist workers erupted. According to a number of members present the meeting became heated with Ms Grahl declaring her opposition with a petulant “I’m the secretary and I don’t support this” and vice-chair Simon Meredith refusing to bring the issue to a vote. When the allotted meeting time was up, with the debate in full swing and a majority of committee members seemingly in favor of endorsing the campaign, Mr. Meredith declared that time was up, called the meeting closed and, together with Ms Grahl and local area organiser Tony Mabbott, walked out. In an online UNISON article six weeks later, Ms Grahl seemed to endorse the campaign. (Reference cited: http://www.unison.org.uk/activists/pages_view.asp?did=15102) Sonia Chura, a cleaner at Hughes Parry Resident Hall and a union steward, guesses that the schism emerged because the branch leadership felt out of control of what was clearly becoming the most dynamic branch activity. Quite possibly there were other contributing factors (the union leadership named have not responded to requests for an interview or comments) but Ms Chura’s conjecture seems to be borne out by the fact that the branch leadership then called a meeting on 22 November to discuss launching an official branch campaign with the same objectives (with the addition of maternity leave). One of the only five workers to attend explained that none of the existing campaign leaders were asked to participate in planning and running the meeting and that it was scheduled for a time when many workers were already on their way to their second jobs. As a result many of the workers have left Unison and their stifling bureaucratic ways and have joined the IWGB union who are keen on organising for them being run from the bottom up and crucially are not linked to supporting the labour party which does hamper Unison more often than not. The 3 Cosas Campaign’s aims are simple – to ensure equality of terms and conditions between the University of London’s direct employees, and its outsourced workers. There are three areas (‘tres cosas’) where the disparity between University and contract workers is greatest – SICK PAY, HOLIDAYS and PENSIONS. The campaign aims to persuade the University to ensure that all workers have the same rights in these three areas. It is eminently affordable, and it is the only right thing to do. Sick pay For a number of reasons, many of the outsourced workers have different terms and conditions. However, the vast majority of the outsourced workers are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), as anyone who earns over £107 per week is entitled to this by law. SSP entails that during the first three days of absence due to illness the worker receives nothing in compensation. Starting on the fourth consecutive day of absence the worker is entitled to £86.70 per week (paid by the government). Given that most people do not know how long they will be sick for when they fall ill, and given that it is extremely difficult to survive on £86.70 per week in London, the reality is that many of the workers come in to work when sick or injured as they cannot afford not to. For more information on SSP click here. The lack of proper sick pay is especially reprehensible in that people who clean toilets and are exposed to strong chemicals, security guards who walk around in the cold for hours on end and catering staff who clean dirty dishes, among others, are particularly exposed to illness. What the 3 Cosas Campaign is calling for is the same sick pay policy for outsourced workers as that received by direct employees of the University of London’s central administration. The table below details the University of London occupational sick pay scheme and has been taken directly from the University of London’s website. As one can see, the amount of sick pay entitlement increases in proportion to the employee’s length of service. Length of Service Level and Length Allowance* Level and Length Allowance* During the first 3 months’ service 2 weeks full pay 2 weeks half pay Three months to one year’s service 2 months full pay 2 months half pay Second and third year of service 3 months full pay 3 months half pay Fourth and fifth year of service 5 months full pay 5 months half pay After five years of service 6 months full pay 6 months half pay Holiday Entitlement There is some variety in holiday entitlement among outsourced workers. For example, there are caterers at the University of London on zero hour’s contracts who receive no paid holidays, despite the fact that their contracts allow for this. However, many of the outsourced workers are entitled to 28 paid holidays (as required by law) per year. Out of these 28, 8 are bank holidays. A significant number of the outsourced workers are then required to take the days that the University of London is closed (roughly 6 per year), out of their remaining 20 days. The workers can then (in theory) decide when to take the remaining days each year. However, in reality, many of the workers are restricted on when they can take these days. For example, during the Olympics many of the intercollegiate halls of residence were rented out to commercial guests (rather than students) and the cleaners at these halls were not allowed to take any vacation days during the summer months. The lack of flexibility on holidays is particularly burdensome in that many of the outsourced workers, particularly cleaners; have to work 3-4 jobs per day to make ends meet. This means that if they want to go back to their countries on vacation that they have to coordinate their vacation days with 3-4 employers. The lack of a fair amount of total paid holidays per year is also especially burdensome in that most of the outsourced workers are immigrants, many of whom have a desire to return home to visit their friends and families. When one is earning £8.55 per hour, and a plane ticket to South America or Africa costs over a £1000, it is difficult to justify going for only two weeks. University of London direct employees, on the other hand, are entitled to between 25 and 30 paid holidays, plus the 8 bank holidays, plus school closure days, totaling as many as 44 paid holidays per year. The 3 Cosas Campaign is calling for all outsourced workers to be entitled to 30 paid holidays, plus bank holidays, plus school closure days, and for more freedom on when these days are taken. For more information on University of London employee annual leave, please see the University of London’s website. Pensions The outsourced workers are eligible for a BBW pension scheme but the terms are so unfavourable that the reality is that almost none of the outsourced workers have bought into the schemes on offer. The mandatory government scheme recently introduced is so small as to be almost negligible. The 3 Cosas Campaign is calling for the ability of all outsourced workers at the University of London to buy into a pension scheme as good as or better than SAUL. The benefits associated with this pension scheme (below) have been taken from the University of London website: • Cost to member is 6% of gross salary and 13% to employer; • A pension for life when you retire; • A tax-free lump sum; • A pension for your spouse when you die; • Allowances for your children when you die; • Full tax relief on all your contributions; • Your benefits protected and preserved should you change employer; • Increases made to your pension after you retire; • The opportunity to pay Additional Voluntary Contributions (AVCs) to improve your benefits. You can find out more about the campaign and find out how to donate to the strike fund as I have done now at http://3cosascampaign.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/iwgb-strike-fund-please-help/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog

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