Elite university faces backlash over abuse of cleaning staff

By staff writers
June 15, 2009

The director of London's prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) abandoned his office this morning, after it was entered peacefully by about 40 campaigners protesting against the dismissal and arrest of nine cleaning staff.

The cleaners were arrested last week and now face deportation from Britain.

Immigration police in riot gear entered SOAS on Friday morning, minutes after the start of an "emergency meeting" for cleaning staff called by the contractor ISS. The company is accused of inviting in the authorities after cleaners campaigned for an increase to their minimal wages.

The SOAS director, Paul Webley, is reported to be meeting with three representatives of the protesters who are still occupying his office. The campaigners, who include SOAS staff and students, are calling on him to disassociate SOAS from ISS and to bring cleaning in-house, with cleaners on the same footing as other staff. They also want him to ask the government to release the detained cleaners.

The protesters say that it is “no coincidence” that SOAS cleaners were among “the first university cleaners to fight for union representation and a decent wage”.

The arrests have been condemned by Unison, the Universities and Colleges Union and the SOAS Students' Union.

The protestors have been joined by film director Ken Loach, veteran activist Tony Benn, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn and Green MEP Jean Lambert.

One of the arrested cleaners is six-months pregnant and another is reported to have been taken seriously ill in detention.

"Universities should be sanctuaries, places free of violence and agression" said Joanne, a student participating in the occuption, "SOAS' reputation as a university has been tainted today."

"As living wage campaigns are building in strength, we are increasingly seeing the use of immigration statuses to attack workers fighting against poverty wages and break trade union organising” said Labour MP John McDonnell.

“The message is that they are happy to employ migrant labour on poverty wages but if you complain, they will send you back home” he continued.

Campaigners are encouraging supporters to back the cleaners by signing their petition at http://www.gopetition.co.uk/online/28557.html.

SOAS staff and students have a long history of campaigning in solidarity with each other. In 2005, their efforts led to SOAS becoming one of the first academic institutions to end its investment in arms companies. SOAS is part of the University of London.

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