A cleaning company has been accused of threatening to withhold potentially life-saving personal protection equipment (PPE) from cleaners at a prestigious south London academy, unless they disaffiliate from their trade union.
In recordings heard by VICE News, Ridge Crest Cleaning regional manager Emma McNabola is heard telling a worker, "I can pick you some masks up from the office and drop them into you. If you guys feel safer with masks and it means everybody goes back and gets rid of the union and we go back to being a nice, civil environment and everything’s OK, then yeah, OK, I can get some masks there for you, Tuesday at the latest."
The conversation came as cleaners at Ark Globe Academy in Southwark, which uses Ridge Crest Cleaning’s services, walked out on the 4th and 5th of June over months of missing wages.
The walkouts happened amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far killed 42,288 people in the UK. On the day of the Ridge Crest Cleaning workers' walkout, the government announced plans to make it mandatory to wear face masks on public transport, following advice released on the 11th of May by SAGE. Though not a legal requirement, government advice at the time was to wear face masks in enclosed spaces such as shops.
Under section 44.1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, employees may legally refuse to go to work where serious or imminent danger is present. They have the lawful right to refuse to go back to work until the danger has been removed. It is unclear whether the threat of coronavirus would fall under the danger referred to in the act.
All of the cleaners employed by Ridge Crest Cleaning at Ark Globe Academy are Black or minority ethnic. According to a government report, BAME people are between 10 and 50 percent more likely to die from coronavirus than their white counterparts. In April, transport worker Belly Mujinga died after contracting coronavirus while at work. She was reportedly spat at by a man claiming to have the virus. Mujinga was not wearing a face mask. Though face masks have not been proven to protect the wearer, they do stop the spread of the disease.
According to United Voices of the World (UVW) – the union that Ridge Crest Cleaning workers are members of – as well as not being provided with PPE, workers were missing up to five weeks' worth of wages in some cases, with several cleaners reportedly at risk of eviction proceedings being commenced at their homes due to accumulated arrears.
Cleaners at the academy are paid the national minimum wage of £8.72 per hour, which is 20 percent lower than the London Living Wage of £10.55. Workers are also not provided with sick pay.
In a conversation with a worker's representative during the walkout, McNabola is heard to say, “If we end this now, we can get face masks on site and speak to Jo and get that pay rise [to London Living Wage] in January, which she’s committed to doing, but can't right now because of the budget."
The Ark Globe Academy is part of the renowned multi-academy trust Ark schools, which is run by Absolute Return for Kids (Ark), an international children’s education charity founded by hedge-fund multi-millionaires Sir Paul Marshall, Ian Wace and Arpad Busson.
After the cleaners' walkout, the outstanding wages were paid by Ridge Crest Cleaning. As cleaners prepared to return to work, McNabola is heard in a later recording saying, "Obviously, it’s great everyone’s going to be coming back to work, so is it the case now that the unions are not going to be involved and we can get the face masks and everything in for Tuesday and get working with Joe and Ark to get you guys paid at the London Living Wage?"
In April, Labour MP for Nottingham East Nadia Whittome was sacked from her job as a care worker for raising the issue of a lack of PPE. Whittome returned to her former employment because of the crisis. She told VICE News: “It is unthinkable that during a pandemic, which has seen BAME people die in disproportionate numbers, companies are attempting to bully or cajole workers with the threat of withholding PPE. Time and time again we’ve seen businesses fall down on their obligations, not helped by increasingly erratic and unclear government guidance, and it is the most vulnerable workers who suffer.”
Petros Elia, UVW organiser, said: "It's an absolute disgrace that Ridge Crest Cleaning workers have been forced to work through one of the deadliest pandemics in history without face masks, and then be told if they want them they'll need to get rid of their union. Essentially, they've been forced to choose between their human rights and their health. In my eight years as a trade unionist, I have never come across such blatant union busting. And frankly, the fact Matt Jones, principal of Ark Globe, has refused to terminate his contract with a known union-busting company leads me to believe Ark Globe are either indifferent to the human rights abuses of their contractors or is complicit in abusing those rights. Either way, Ark Globe need to act quick before the cleaners move to strike and their reputation [becomes] stained forever."
One cleaner, who wished to remain anonymous, told VICE News: “Ark and Ridge Crest Cleaning treat us like dirt, our money was stolen for months and some of us were on the verge of losing our homes. But now we’ve got UVW to support us we’re not going to back down – we will fight and strike and do whatever it takes to get Ark Globe Academy to realise that we are not the dirt we clean.”
UWV have confirmed that they will start legal proceedings against both Ridge Crest Cleaning and Ark Globe. The cleaners plan to go on strike to demand London Living Wage, occupational sick pay, trade union recognition and the creation of a worker-led health and safety committee.
An Ark Globe spokesperson said: “Ark Globe has been in regular contact with senior management from Ridge Crest Cleaning. Their employees raised some significant concerns, and the school has made it clear to Ridge Crest Cleaning that it is their hope that the issues are all resolved fairly and in a timely manner. Ark Globe is wholly supportive of a union recognition agreement being put in place at Ridge Crest Cleaning, and the company has assured us that they are supportive of their staff being represented by unions.”
It is understood that, at the time of publishing, the recordings had not been made available to either Ark Globe or Ridge Crest Cleaning.
Simon Wrenn, managing director of Ridge Crest Cleaning told VICE News: “The comments alleged to have been made in a recording are not reflective of the views of Ridge Crest Cleaning in relation to union membership for our staff. We are keen to investigate this matter, but the refusal of UVW to share with us the recording is hindering this process. We also wrote to UVW last Friday to confirm that we were willing to enter discussions, but as yet we have not had a response."
He added: “Ridge Crest Cleaning has followed the government guidance issued in relation to Health and Safety, PPE and face masks. In specific relation to face masks, the government guidance entitled 'Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and healthcare setting', which was updated on the 1st of June, states, ‘Wearing a face covering or face mask in schools or other education settings is not recommended’. It then goes on to say ‘The majority of staff in education settings will not require PPE beyond that which they would normally need for their work, even if they are not always able to maintain a distance of two metres from others.'"