Cleaning staff at a Catholic school have decided to take part in Lent in their own way – by striking for 40 days and 40 nights.
The workers at Le Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School are planning industrial action starting on March 16 – which will be the first strike in the school’s 140-year history.
The cleaners, who are outsourced to a private company Ecocleen, are demanding full sick pay, a London Living Wage and a reduction in their hours of work.
They are also seeking a repayment of what their union, United Voices of the World (UVW), says is unlawfully withheld wages.
Cleaners at Le Retraite school
Roberto Díaz, a cleaner at the school in Clapham Park, said: “When we get ill – either with COVID-19 or something else – we simply can’t afford to take sick leave.
“If we do, we’ll lose our wages, and as we already live on the breadline every penny we lose risks leaving us unable to buy food or pay for rent. “And what’s worse is that the La Retraite knows this. Which is why teachers get full pay sick pay. If teachers get it then why can’t cleaners?”
Tensions worsened recently after Ecocleen deducted one month’s wages from some of the cleaners after they refused to work until the company addressed their safety concerns. After four weeks their health and safety demands were finally met.
But in what their union calls a “cruel, vindictive and unlawful punishment” their wages were withheld, forcing some of the cleaners to look for loans and food banks to survive.
UVW has pledged to take Ecocleen to court to recover the withheld wages in what will be the first legal claim of its type in relation to a COVID-19 safety walk out. Petros Elia, UVW organiser, said: “As all the cleaners are BAME and/or migrant workers, whilst the majority of La Retraite staff are White, this double standard in pay and terms and conditions, which has no justification other than cost, breaches the Equality Act and La Retraite’s Public Sector Equality Duty.
“It’s institutional racism in our view. So as well as supporting our members to strike for 40 days and 40 nights and as long it takes beyond that to ensure they are treated as justly and as equals, we will also be bringing legal proceedings.”
Mr Elia added: “This type of injustice may be commonplace in private, profit hungry companies but to see it in a Catholic School which has made an explicit commitment live by “Gospel values and the teachings of the church” including “treating everyone equally and with justice” shows that when it comes to the cleaners these are mere pious platitudes.”
Magalay Quesda, a migrant from Cuba who works at the school, said the following: “It was never our intention to go on strike, but I believe that our demands are fair and that anyone with a little empathy can understand where we’re coming from. They have left us no choice. They won’t listen to us, they won’t talk to us, and they won’t treat us fairly so what other choice do we have than to strike if we want to be heard?”
A spokeswoman from Ecocleen said: “Ecocleen is fully committed to safeguarding the health and safety of all of our workers across every one of our sites during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have undertaken the necessary COVID-19 risk assessment in line with the UK Government guidelines throughout the business, including at La Retraite.
“All of our workers deserve to be compensated for their services and hard work in these challenging circumstances, which is why we are pleased that, as of January 2021 and following La Retraite’s proposal, all cleaners on site are being paid the London Living Wage.
“We can also confirm that, since the start of the pandemic, Ecocleen has provided PPE equipment to all of our cleaners across all of our sites, to ensure the safe working practices of all of our valued employees.
“Finally, we recognise our employees’ right to go on strike and will remain in close dialogue and consultation with them to establish how Ecocleen is able to best support their needs with our specialist health and safety team at Peninsula.”