Before Easter the university announced that 114 staff were going to face worse pay and conditions, or losing their jobs. Since then it has announced that around 250 cleaners would be moved from weekday contracts on to any five days in seven contracts. This morning I attended a meeting called by Unison, that over 100 cleaners attended. Many of them said that more would have come had it not been held when people had other commitments. Staff talked at length about the problems new contracts would cause them before the room voted unanimously to reject the university’s changing of their contracts. Many non-union staff joined Unison at the meeting and many more spoke in favour of industrial action.
At the moment, most cleaners work during the weekdays and have the weekends off. A five day in seven contract means that the university can force you to work any five days, but you have no control over which ones. Cleaners are band 100 workers meaning that they get paid £13,600 a year on a full time contract, however most cleaners work 15 hours per week, getting paid around £5,000 a year. At this pay and hours you are not eligible for working tax credit, JSA and, depending on other circumstances; you are often not eligible for housing benefit. This means that a University of Birmingham cleaning job does not provide enough income to live. Those who work full time rely on the overtime payments they get for working at the weekend.
Most University of Birmingham cleaners have another job, and many have three or four. During the meeting a number of people stood up and said that if this contract change went through they could not work at the weekends, and would lose jobs they relied on. Others talked about family members that worked during the week and so if they were moved onto these contracts, they would not be able to see their families. Others talked about how they took this job because they wanted to go to church on a Sunday. The university’s position is that anyone who doesn’t take the new contract is leaving voluntarily, and so would be dismissed with no redundancy pay.
Cleaners at the meeting expressed an expectation that this attack on conditions was the thin edge of a wedge that would lead to further attacks by the university. This was backed up by the experience of staff in the conference park who were first moved onto 5 day in seven contracts and then onto annualized hours. Other staff talked about how they expected these attacks on conditions to be a preparation for outsourcing; moving staff on to worse contracts so that the private sector would be willing to take them.
Students should oppose these attacks on cleaners because it is unacceptable for workers at the university where we are studying to be treated with such contempt; or to be given the pay and conditions that the university are proposing. We should also oppose the attacks because they go against student’s personal interest. The new contracts mean a worse standard of cleaning at the university; the current cleaning policy is that if someone is off for any reason they are simply not covered, the existing staff just clean a larger area less well, or not at all. This means that when cleaners are forced to work weekends their areas will just not be cleaned, and we will be studying in a less comfortable and safe environment.
More importantly these attacks are part of an increasing trend of casualisation affecting workers in all kinds of jobs. Fighting for the conditions of workers at Birmingham University, or anywhere else, is part of the fight for better conditions for ourselves. Many students have worked in casualised jobs on zero hour contracts and it is shit, never being able to plan when you are going to work and having no rights against your manager. If you do not want to be working in this sort of a casualised condition for the rest of your life, you should not wish it on anyone else, and you should get involved in the campaign to defend low paid workers at the University of Birmingham.
There will be a demonstration on the first of May at 12pm outside the clock tower https://www.facebook.com/events/160801414088302/?fref=ts
David Eastwood has until the 15th of May to reply to the letter sent by Defend Education, and call of the plans http://www.defendeducationbrum.org/a-letter-to-vc/