Queen Mary University of London post-doc Akshi Singh writes in support of the boycott of Senate House, the administrative centre of the University of London, and calls for solidarity with outsourced workers. “If the people who clean our rooms in our university cannot live with dignity, then our intellectual work is based on exploitation.”

Dear Colleagues,

I’m writing because this is a crucial time for outsourced workers at the University of London and the boycott of Senate House, and I want to encourage you to support both in every way you can.

We are living through times of increasing racism, and hostility towards migrants. There is a resurgence of both sexism and homophobia.

It is urgent that in this context, we stand by those who have shown the courage and hope required to demand a just and equal society. These are the workers calling for the boycott of Senate House. If you have looked at the newspaper headlines and felt despair at what you read, if you have felt helpless in those moments, then think of what it must take—as a precariously employed cleaner living in a country where she has to speak in a foreign tongue—to act with the conviction that the world can be better.

The University is using tactics both of intimidation and misinformation to stop us from seeing this. It relies on us getting bored, our interests drifting so that it can carry on as usual. And what does ‘as usual’ mean—it means no pension, it means harassment by a homophobic supervisor, it means not being able to plan your future.

If the people who clean our rooms in our university cannot live with dignity, then our intellectual work is based on exploitation. This is a painful fact, but we have been offered an opportunity where it could be otherwise. Please lend your support, and your imagination, to the boycott.

In writing this email, I would like to both express my gratitude to the IHR for continuing to support off-site seminars, and express some disagreements with the letter sent on behalf of Jo Fox to seminar convenors.

What follows may seem lengthy—this is because I quote from the letter so as to not misconstrue what was said. The extracts in bold are from Jo Fox’s letter. I know that you are pressed for time, but keep reading—and I would be grateful for your thoughts or questions, if you would like to write to me.

I write now to update you on the boycott and the IHR’s response. I do so with the encouragement of the IHR Annual Seminar Convenors’ Meeting held on 24 July 2019 and the IHR’s Seminar Advisory Group. Attendees at both of these meetings felt that the full community of IHR convenors ought to be aware of the three main points that I outlined at the Convenors’ Meeting.

I’d like to add here that I also spoke at the meeting and said that it was a crucial time for the boycott and that we should continue to support it, as the university had not brought the workers in-house and only offered vague promises about ‘revision of contracts’. I said that as a seminar convenor who was a migrant and who had worked as an outsourced worker myself, I thought that the boycott was crucial in addressing the discrimination, economic and racial, that outsourced workers face. I also asked why the university was able to spend so much money on security (to which Jo Fox said that security was ‘essential’—‘they have to spend that money’ because Senate House is at risk of being occupied).

I want to mention this here because the letter suggests there was some sort of consensus about the boycott and its detrimental effects at the Convenors’ Meeting. This was not the case—I was there, and I disagreed.

Some staff have already been transferred onto in-house contracts and the University is committed to completing this process towards the end of 2020, with new arrangements for Grounds, Cleaning and Catering from Jan 2021. It has published a timetable which explains the milestones for the rest of the process. This timetable, together with further information and FAQs, is available publicly at: https://www.sas.ac.uk/university-insourcing-and-boycott-senate-house

If you click on the link that is included above as evidence of the University’s commitment to in-sourcing, it shows that the University in fact makes no commitment to bringing security, cleaning, estates maintenance, catering or grounds staff in-house. It merely refers to ‘reviews’ and ‘new arrangements’ – all of which could leave current contractors in place OR simply see them replaced with equally exploitative companies. The University has made it clear that catering contract will not be addressed until 2022, so the claim in the letter above is factually incorrect.

The process of insourcing must be managed carefully in negotiation with the University of London and with the oversight of its Board of Trustees. If it does not proceed in a considered, manageable and sustainable way, the work and future of the IHR will be in jeopardy.

Surely accepting the continued exploitation of workers is not sustainable? And if it is considered, isn’t it just considered exploitation?

The University continually makes choices as to how to allocate its resources. For the last 20 years it has chosen to allocate them away from cleaners’ pensions and towards ever-escalating senior management salaries and vanity building projects. It is the current discriminatory arrangements which are unsustainable, which should never have been justified, and which should not be allowed to continue a moment longer.

You can find details of an independent verification of the affordability of in-housing in the statement here.

Regardless of any differences we may have, or the strength of opinions involved in these campaigns, colleagues should never feel intimidated or bullied at work. And yet, this is precisely the experience of the IHR’s staff, including myself. 

The IWGB have said that they take bullying very seriously and will investigate every instance of bullying that comes to their notice.

What surprises me though, is that this letter makes no mention of the daily bullying and harassment faced by outsourced workers. This is particularly disingenuous given the University of London’s recent crackdown on outsourced staff and their union – again, see the statement here for full details.

I would also like to add that a difference of opinion, an assertion of rights, an attempt to be heard are not bullying, and are not intimidation.

If someone else’s opinion, or the story of their lives, or the revelation of the conditions in which they work threatens and destabilizes the complacency and or comfort of others then it would be unfair and disingenuous to call this bullying.

I am happy to tell you that the IHR has already benefited from the University’s insourcing timetable. Our receptionists, Glen Jacques and Muneer Hussain, who are so important to the life and work of the IHR, have been on University of London permanent contracts since May

With regards to Glen and Muneer, it is inappropriate to use them as ‘poster boys’ for the IHR’s benevolent approach to its previously outsourced staff. They have both expressed they are extremely unhappy with the way they have been treated by the IHR, as despite having been promised for months that they would be given job descriptions which properly reflected the work they do and which makes them ‘so important to the life and work of the IHR’, they have been fobbed off, ignored, and issued with generic receptionist contracts which leave them underpaid and undervalued.

At present, the terms of the UCU boycott are unclear

This is not the case – the boycott motion (which was overwhelmingly passed by Congress, and subsequently ratified by the UCU Higher Education Committee) is extremely clear – it is now official UCU policy NOT to attend or organise any events at the central University of London administration buildings until all outsourced workers have been brought in-house.

The UCU boycott has come about in large part because of the support the IWGB gave to UCU last year when they went on strike over pensions, and the IWGB joined them. The pensions strike was also disruptive, but it was disruptive in the short term for the long term benefit of all. This is the same thing – except this time it is cleaners’ pensions.

We as seminar convenors need to realise that every time we cross the threshold into a seminar held on site we are crossing a picket line, against the explicit wishes of our own union and of the outsourced workers who welcome us into the building, who serve us food in the canteen, who clean the rooms we sit in, and whose racially discriminatory exploitation we are complicit in.

Thank you for reading this letter.

Best wishes

Dr. Akshi Singh
Department of History
Queen Mary, University of London
Psychoanalysis and History Seminar co-convenor and delegate to the Convenors Against Outsourcing GrouP