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The battle unfolding at the Royal College of Music

Ignored by their employers and frustrated by an impotent union, outsourced workers are launching a powerful campaign for their rights. 

Jess Bilcock
16 August 2015
Royal College of Music

The RCM is not alone in hiring some of London's lowest paid workers. Flickr/cactusbeetroot. Some rights reserved.

On the 26th May 2015, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) opened their campaign against the Royal College of Music (RCM) in order to improve the employment terms and conditions of some of London’s lowest paid workers. The campaign, called the 3 Cosas, had been carried out before, at the University of London, where outsourced workers faced the same precarious terms and conditions that those at the Royal College of Music do today. That campaign was successful and, in spring of 2015, the IWGB set their sights on the prestigious Royal College of Music.

“I can’t visit my family for a long time”

Among many of the issues surrounding the employment terms of outsourced workers in London, three things are consistently inadequate: sick pay, holiday pay and employer pension contributions. At the Royal College of Music, as at many other higher education institutions up and down the country, outsourced cleaners receive no occupational sick pay, the statutory minimum holiday as well as meagre employer pension contributions (if any at all). These terms and conditions contrast sharply with those of the College’s direct employees. The exploitative terms leave workers vulnerable; a lack of sick pay causes the employees to have to work when seriously ill, or injured. Wilson Ayala Romero, a cleaner at the Royal College of Music and the Campaigns officer for the University of London branch of the IWGB, revealed: “even if [we] show proof from a GP that we are ill, [we] still wouldn’t get paid. I know many of my co-workers in this situation… there is a lot of exploitation”.

Moreover, a decreased holiday allowance leaves these migrant workers unable to visit their homes and minimal employer pension contributions leave these physical labourers with an uncertain future. As Enrique Ramirez, another cleaner at the Royal College of Music, explained: “I can’t take more than 10 days holiday in a row... I can’t visit my family for a long time”.

By targeting the institution, the IWGB hopes to improve conditions for these outsourced workers. The Royal College of Music refuses responsibility for the cleaners’ conditions as they are technically employed by Ocean Integrated Services. However, the notion that the Royal College of Music bears little responsibility for, or control over these vulnerable workers’ conditions is simply not tenable. The changes made at the University of London prove that these institutions do have the ability to improve their outsourced workers’ lives. Following the first 3 Cosas Campaign at the University of London, workers there now receive up to six months occupational sick pay and 33 days holiday. Moreover, just earlier this year, the Royal College of Music made the decision to raise their outsourced workers’ wages to match the London Living Wage of £9.15 per hour, after pressure from the IWGB. The London Living Wage is a rate that is agreed upon as the bare minimum needed to survive in London, a concept endorsed by those across the political spectrum. The College have thus shown themselves not only to be susceptible to pressure from the union, but also capable of improving the lives of their outsourced workers.

Therefore, in April 2015, the IWGB sent a letter to Professor Colin Lawson, director of RCM, demanding the following changes to the outsourced workers’ terms and conditions:

  1. 35 days holiday, as opposed to 28 (including bank holidays).
  2. Up to six months occupational sick pay instead of the statutory minimum.
  3. Access to a pension scheme that would acknowledge the physicality of the work by increasing the employer pension contributions.

“All the workers were supporting us”

After the Royal College of Music failed to implement the proposed changes by the suggested deadline, 26th May 2015, the IWGB embarked upon a series of demonstrations. The first of which was held on the 19th June, followed swiftly by a second on 10th July. Both protests were held at the College, (Prince Consort Road, London, SW7 2BS), and the tactics were simple: shame publically and loudly. The second demo fell on the College’s graduation day, as the undergraduates and their families arrived. Despite the IWGB’s continued attempts to negotiate with the college prior to the event, RCM refused to come to the table, triggering the demonstration and leaving their students to face the disruption to what should have been their day of celebration.

The Royal College of Music continuously refuse to negotiate with the workers and their chosen union. The RCM will only engage with UNISON, despite the fact that the IWGB represent the overwhelming majority of RCM cleaners. Moreover, according to one worker, the college have suggested that the only way for their demands to be acknowledged would be to join UNISON. The University of London branch of the IWGB split from UNISON back in 2013, due to a number of disputes ranging back over a couple of years. At the heart of the disagreements lay the 3 Cosas Campaign, that was then directed at the University of London. The workers at the University were facing the same poor employment terms and conditions that those at the Royal College of Music do today, yet UNISON were reluctant to engage in industrial action or support the worker-led campaign. Indeed, UNISON spent several months actively sabotaging the campaign. The breaking point came after UNISON’s branch elections, in which the pro-3 Cosas candidates had run for positions in the union. After rigorous canvassing and campaigning, the representatives, who are now chairs and secretaries in the IWGB, felt confident they had amassed an overwhelming majority of votes.

As Henry Chango Lopez, Vice President of the IWGB, stated: “All the workers were supporting us... they had a lot of confidence in us because... every day they went to their workplaces... we were almost like a family... the majority said they would vote for us”. Yet when the day came to announce the outcome of the election, UNISON refused to release the results, or schedule another election. As far as the nominees were concerned, they had been purposefully thwarted by a union with little regard for the democratic process, or their workers’ needs. Henry Chango Lopez revealed: “They [UNISON] put posters up around the university saying that... they weren’t involved with the 3 Cosas, even when we were involved with the union... UNISON and the University were colluding together in order to fight the workers.”

“Our rights shouldn’t depend on what union we belong to”

The Royal College of Music’s insistence that the workers must join the non-combative UNISON is perhaps unsurprising. Yet given the union’s track record, the likelihood of improved terms and conditions emerging for these workers, should they join UNISON, may well be bleak.  Lopez added: ‘They [RCM] are using that as an excuse not to talk to the IWGB... because it is costly and they don’t want to give us the money. It’s not something that will help the workers get the 3 Cosas”. Such a condemnation does not seem to be an exaggeration, if the union’s past behaviour is an indicator. One worker, annoyed at the College’s stalling, stated: “our rights shouldn’t depend on what union we belong too”. While the demands may be costly for the College, the changes in terms and conditions would make a huge difference to the quality of these workers’ lives.  Enrique Ramirez explained: “There is no security [with the current terms and conditions]... if we win I would feel protected”.

Despite the challenges, however, the IWGB will not give up the fight. The material difference that these improved conditions would make in the cleaners’ lives, like the ability to return home, stay home when they are sick and retire comfortably, are only part of what they stand to gain from the 3 Cosas. For many of the workers, the 3 Cosas Campaign signifies something far greater, as one cleaner noted: “this union is like [our] voice… We are here and we hope to get our dignity”.

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The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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