There’s a joke that’s been told by cleaners in London during the pandemic, that they must be immune from the coronavirus, because they are asked to go to work no matter what.
It’s this sort of dark humour that has kept Julián Marín, a cleaner working at a prestigious university, going during a truly bleak situation.
He and 15 colleagues must leave their homes and use public transport every day to get to the Royal College of Art’s (RCA) campus in Kensington, West London, one of the wealthiest areas of the UK. There they crowd into a five metre square changing room, before getting to work cleaning a building that’s being used – by Marín’s reckoning – by about three art students per day, as well as a handful of administrative staff. “The people who are filling the buildings are the cleaners,” he says.
Last month, the UK reached the grim milestone or 100,000 COVID deaths, the highest COVID death toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world. London has been the epicentre of a new variant of the virus which emerged in the UK. Government scientists have said the new variant is 50 percent more transmissible than the strain that was previously dominant in the UK, and early evidence suggests it could be 30 percent more deadly.
As deaths spiralled, the government started the year by imposing a strict national lockdown, telling people only to leave their house if absolutely necessary for a handful of reasons set out in law, such as exercising, buying essentials or going to work if working from home is impossible. A government advert warned people that going for a coffee with a friend could cost a life, and an £800 fine has been announced for anyone who holds a house party of over 15 people.
But while the messaging around personal responsibility has ramped up, official data suggests that infections surged when people returned to work after Christmas. Workers like Marín have no choice but to shoulder risks that others able to work from home do not.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, due to the multiple inequalities they face. Marín, one of the many Latin American cleaners working at universities in London, is employed through an outsourcing company. Most outsourced cleaners at London universities are from BAME or migrant backgrounds. Unions have criticised outsourcing for creating a two-tier workforce, where outsourced workers have worse conditions than those employed directly by universities.
Marín spoke to VICE World News from isolation after a colleague contracted coronavirus, although he says his boss advised him to come to work anyway. “I called my boss and he told me if you don’t come to work you won’t receive full pay. He told me it’s better for me to come to work and get full payment. I was trying to tell him, ‘I would like to protect another person, even if my test is negative, it’s better to protect another person’.”
But even as we spoke Marín was considering returning to work, as his decision to stay at home will cost him: he will receive statutory sick pay of just £95.85 a week. His wife is also a cleaner and as their family relies on their combined salaries, they can ill afford to lose two weeks of pay. Besides, his boss was asking him to return to work after just two days.
“We feel that our lives and health don’t really matter to them. People don’t feel supported or protected by the employer so that you can stay home and protect yourself,” Marín said.
As a cleaner on low pay, Marín is among those workers who are more likely to be at risk. The lowest paid workers are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to white-collar professionals. The TUC, a federation of unions in England and Wales, is calling for tougher health and safety measures at work, as well as an extension of sick pay to all workers, and an increase in sick pay, so that people can afford to self-isolate. Self-isolation adherence is between around 18 to 25 percent, with those earning below £20,000 and less than £100 in savings three times less likely to isolate. The majority of applications to discretionary payment of £500 to help people on low pay self-isolate launched by the government in September have been rejected.
Since VICE World News spoke to Marín, the cleaning contractor Churchill which employs him has started paying its RCA cleaners who must isolate in full, but the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union is pushing for back payments for those who have already faced financial hardship due to having to isolate.
A spokesperson for the RCA said: “We strongly refute any suggestion that we are not keeping our colleagues safe. In addition to our own initiatives, we respond swiftly to any concerns raised and make improvements where we can. We are in near constant dialogue with our unions and contracting partners on matters of safety, health and financial wellbeing.”
“Our number one priority throughout the pandemic has been the safety of all of our students, staff and contractors. We are adhering rigorously to government guidelines on COVID-19 safety protocols and access to our buildings.
“As per this guidance, our Estates team are on campus to facilitate the opening of limited study spaces and will continue to do so while lockdown remains in force.
“We are doing everything we can to look after our people, whether RCA-employed staff or contractors. We have enhanced our COVID-secure safety protocols, including increased frequency of cleaning and sanitisation routines. We have reduced the number of hours onsite while maintaining full pay and, where possible, staggered journey times and made sure no one has to travel between campuses.”
Across universities in London, the IWGB is demanding that non-essential buildings are closed, and for workers to be placed on furlough, as well as hazard pay for essential workers. The union says that it knows of at least 12 security guards who have had to self-isolate with symptoms since the 4th of January at University College London (UCL) alone.
In March 2020 as the pandemic got underway, UCL announced that all staff employed by outsourcing companies Axis, Sodexo and Aramark would be able to access sick pay. “This had been planned for July, but as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic, UCL has today decided to bring forward the date,” the university announced.
This followed a strike of outsourced workers in November and December 2019 demanding the same rights as in-house staff. Since then, Sodexo has hired many zero-hours staff, who are entitled to no such benefits. There are at least 100 zero-hours staff currently working at UCL. An email from a UCL HR manager seen by VICE World News confirms that zero-hours workers do not receive sick pay in the event of isolating due to COVID. The IWGB is aware of at least three zero-hours cleaners who have had to isolate and have not been paid.
A Sodexo spokesperson said: “Our casual workers are not eligible for company sick pay. However, where casual workers have shifts assigned and are unable to fulfil them due to illness or self-isolation they may be eligible for statutory sick pay.”
At some University of London libraries, staff were asked to volunteer, while at others management presented a fait accompli, advertising openings and thanking staff for volunteering before any surveys were conducted.
At London South Bank University, a Churchill manager said that they would use the “quiet time” of the national lockdown to deep clean the building – something for which they would normally pay overtime. VICE Word News spoke to one cleaner who must travel into London cleaning the same floor of a building every day, which currently no university staff are actually using. “They ask you to do cleaning upon cleaning, and clean what’s already clean,” he says.
In a statement UCL said that “The health and wellbeing of UCL staff and students is our highest priority and we have put in place a large number of safety measures to ensure our campus is as safe as possible.”
London South Bank University, UCL and the University of London all said that they are following government guidance, have improved safety measures and are allowing only essential on campus activity that is necessary for their students.
VICE World News approached Churchill Group for comment but received no response.
The IWGB wrote to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive agency about the RCA, and the conditions faced by Marín and his colleagues. The complaint was dismissed, with HSE pointing out that universities have not been required by the government to close, and said that therefore no further action was to be taken. The number of employers prosecuted for making people work in unsafe conditions during the pandemic is zero.
While lower paid workers are among the worst affected, others are facing issues too.
A woman in her mid-20s working in the creative industries in London told VICE World News the issue is having an employer that seems not to care. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said: “The company has managed to find a loophole and register themselves as ‘essential’ – but we’re literally not at all. There are hundreds of staff and we all do computer-based roles.
“We currently have 15 cases of COVID within the staff. Two people are in hospital on ventilators and life support as a result of catching the virus at work, which was completely avoidable. And those who worked with them in the same office are still working. A lot of us are so uncomfortable that we pretend to have symptoms and book home tests and don’t send them back for a week just to avoid going in when there are big outbreaks.”
She continued: “My colleague wore a mask and the directors came in and said, ‘why are you wearing that? You’re young it won’t affect you.’ And they encouraged her to remove it.”
Workers in early years education are facing issues too. Nurseries were shut in March, but while schools are now closed, nurseries are allowed to open again. Defending the decision, the chief medical adviser to the government said, “we all do know that children are very, very low risk of this virus relative to other ages, so it's not zero risks but it's a very low risk."
The latest official data shows that there were 2,279 reported cases of coronavirus in nurseries the week commencing the 18th of January and 2,357 in the week commencing the 11th of January, compared to 582 the week before – by far the highest recorded during the pandemic. Test and trace data shows that nursery schools are the second most common locations that people testing positive with COVID reported having attended.
Mandy, not her real name, a member of the United Voices of the World union childcare branch works in a private nursery in London. She said: “We don’t have any protection at work at all. I have children coughing in my face – you can’t blame them, it’s the nature of the job.”
As for ventilation, “We have one window open about an inch because it’s so cold now.”
“It’s scary. My husband is in his mid-50s and has asthma.”
When Mandy has raised concerns to management she was told she can take unpaid leave. But with her husband off work due to his vulnerabilities, it’s not an option. “I’d love to! But we’re living on my wage,” she says.
Andy McDonald MP, Labour’s Shadow Employment Rights and Protections Secretary, said: “Throughout the pandemic, the government has neglected the enforcement of workplace protections, allowing some irresponsible employers to flout the law in the workplaces they control, and put at risk the health and safety of workers, and, in turn, the wider public.
“Mixed messages from the government, unclear guidance for safe working practices and a lack of enforcement has meant that longstanding laws to protect workers have not been enforced for those who have worked throughout lockdown. This has contributed to the UK suffering one of the world’s highest death tolls and the biggest economic hits of any major economy.”
A HSE spokesperson said: “Employers must carry out risk assessments and put control measures in place to manage the risk of coronavirus in line with government guidance relevant to their workplace.
“Employees should discuss concerns over attending work and whether or not they can work from home with their employer, and may approach ACAS [Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service] for advice on their employment rights. Where workers have concerns that they have not been able to resolve with their employer, they can raise their concerns with HSE Concerns and Advice Team.”
A spokesperson for LSBU said, “All cleaners at LSBU are issued with disposable gloves and a reusable plastic visors, without charge. Free disposable masks are also available from LSBU receptions for any member of staff who forgets their face covering or visor.
“LSBU has COVID-19 secure buildings and has put stringent risk assessments in place to protect the safety of all students, staff and contractors who work on our campuses.”
LSBU says it is “following government guidance and is only supporting essential on-campus activity that our students need.”
A spokesperson added: “We introduced an enhanced programme of cleaning which continues in all buildings that are open for essential on-campus activity to protect the safety of all students, staff and contractors. We are incredibly grateful for the vital work done by contracted cleaning staff on our campuses and will continue to provide a safe and secure working environment for them.”
A University of London spokesperson said: “The safety of our staff and students is of paramount importance to us.
“We are currently only using a limited part of our estate. As per government guidance, our essential on-site services include supporting over 1,000 students still in our halls, providing access to library resources/ study spaces, and facilitating the provision of diplomas and transcripts. Closing these services would have a devastating impact on students who are already challenged in completing degrees.
“The University has carefully planned the delivery of these services to ensure that the number of staff required on-site is kept to an absolute minimum, and that we are providing a safe and secure work environment.
“We carry out regular risk assessments and operate carefully staggered shifts to minimise the number of staff on site. This is also so those who have no alternative to travelling on public transport can avoid peak times. We have a Covid testing centre on-site and encourage all staff and students entering our buildings to have regular testing.”
UCL said it had “put in place a large number of safety measures to ensure our campus is as safe as possible.”
It said that it has, “moved all operational and educational activity online with the exemption of a small handful of practical teaching programmes and research. All buildings have been put on restricted access to significantly reduce the numbers of frontline staff needed on campus.”