The Houses of Parliament cleaners made history by staging their first walk-out on the morning of 20th July. At 10 am the strikers assembled outside St. Stephens’ entrance together with some MPs, parliamentary staff and the media to publicise their demands. The strikers were chanting slogans like “Low Pay, No Way” while some of them were brandishing placards and mops. Faced with appalling working conditions and the disrespectful attitude of the contractors (the direct employers of the cleaners) and their main customers (Parliamentary Authorities) the workers have decided to hold a 24 hour strike. Before holding strike action the cleaners, organised by the Transport&General Workers Union (T&GWU), launched a cleaners’ manifesto.
The words of a young T&GWU shop steward at the picket line describe the situation quite well:”We used to be on 4.5 pounds an hour and since last month we have received 5 pounds an hour. We just have 12 days holiday a year, no sick pay and no pension. This is a disgrace in the house of democracy. We are working 16 hours a day sometimes. When you are on a five pounds an hour and you live in Central London. there is no way you can sustain yourself just working 40h a week. All the cleaners are forced to work overtime just to survive.” The same shop steward goes on to say how their “changing premises are disgusting. We have no proper facilities to change. We have rats passing by, filth everywhere, pipes on top of our heads... all of that inside the most beautiful building in the city.”
At the same time that workers were voting to go on strike over pay, Geoff Hoon, new leader of the House, announced a 20% pay rise for MPs who chair committees. Their £13,107 increase is more than the cleaners earn in a year. The contempt of the right wing clique installed in the government to the workers has no limit. The demands of the workers are not in any way unreasonable. Their manifesto asks for 28 days holiday, company sick pay, £6.70 per hour and a company pension. However, it looks too much for the Parliamentary Authorities who have already taken a “hands off” approach. “This dispute is between the contractors and their staff”, said a spokesperson of the Parliamentary Authorities (The Guardian, July 14, 2005). It was them in the first place who allowed Mitie Cleaning, Emprise Services and their miserable working conditions in. Once more we come across the nonsense of capitalism. While these 140 cleaners just have 12 days holiday, MPs, who are on £59,095 a year, are about to have a 16 week long holiday.
In spite of their difficult situation and belonging to one of the most vulnerable layers of the working class – most of them are migrant workers – they are determined to fight.
As one of the striker puts it:”This is just the beginning. We want to link up all the cleaners, get them organised and rise our voice. We want to do something about it. These people [Parliamentary Authorities] are going to go on holidays and forget about us, but we are not going to let them. Everywhere they’ll go we will chase them up and if necessary we’ll go to the airports to remind them they cannot forget about the workers.”
As Geoff Hoon and the pay rises he is giving to his friends show, there is no material reason why the strikers should not get their demands accepted.
This walk out has been a success for the cleaners, just three scabs out of 140 workers dared to cross the picket line. Now it is time for T&GWU to keep the pressure on and not only get the demands but to match them with the ones of directly employed by Parliament. That is £8 an hour and 30 days holiday on top of the sick pay and pension.