Monday, June 15, 2009

SOAS Occupation in support of cleaners

This is a cross post , written By Jim at The Daily (Maybe ):

SOAS occupation: chaos the better virtue

Just got back from SOAS where around thirty people are occupying the director's office in support of those cleaners who were arrested by immigration police on Friday.

The cleaners, who work for private company ISS, were called into a dawn meeting by management on Friday morning. The police, who were laying in wait for them, swooped out and seized nine cleaners - my understanding is that six have now been deported and three others are under threat of deportation, including a woman who is six month's pregnant and a sick woman in her sixties who had a heart attack whilst in custody.

The company who is in a struggle to break the union had previously sacked the grassroots trade unionist Stalin Bermudez who had been waging a very effective campaign for a decent living wage for cleaners at SOAS and elsewhere. This move is clearly part of finishing the union off by deporting trouble makers and cowing the others.

Immigration controls are often used to divide and rule with migrant workers being among the most vulnerable and most poorly paid. The answer is not to demand British Jobs for British Workers but to throw an arm around migrant workers and ensure they get paid the same, are welcomed into the unions and that any attempt to use immigration laws against trade unionists is resisted tooth and nail.

The management was clearly complicit in the arrests at best and helped organise them at worst. The university was informed that the police were coming and they gave permission for the raid to take place and, to some unknown extent, assisted in the ambush that had been laid for their staff.

The demonstration that was called for this morning heard from various excellent speakers one of whom compared these cleaners to the tolpuddle martyrs. Of course the comparison is not exactly direct - after all the martyrs were given a trial before they were deported.

At this point the SOAS workers attending the demo announced they were to hold a union meeting and someone else suggested we put our demands to the management direct, so around thirty to forty of us marched up to the director's office and had a bit of a business meeting with him.

We discussed his role in the arrests, his support for farming out cleaning to a private company, what he could have done to prevent the arrests and what he was willing to do to repair the damage that had been done. It was an emotional meeting on both sides, the director was clearly unhappy with having his office occupied and a bunch of plebs talking to him like an equal and we were unhappy that trade unionists had been deported to Latin American countries including Colombia.

We also put it to him that Stalin Bermudez should be reinstated. He disagreed. Read the full list of demands here.

Now I have a confession. Even as we marched into office I was thinking 'oh, I really need the loo' and eventually I couldn't take it anymore and nipped out to get some relief. It's not the most heroic episode of the day I grant you but wetting myself might have been misinterpreted and certainly a little anti-social for those who'd have to share a cramped space with me so I think it was for the best.

By the time I came back the door was locked and there was a guard posted there not allowing anyone back into the occupied zone. It was all non-violent direct action so it just wouldn't have been appropriate to karate chop the guard down and kick open the door, although if Hollywood ever make a big screen version they might like to write that bit in.

Instead I hung about outside the door and told people who were thinking of leaving that they wouldn't be able to get back in, which meant a couple of people didn't come a cropper at least. Eventually the occupation asked the director to leave as they had things to be getting on with and after a bit of toing and froing that's what happened.

Banners were hung up out the windows and it looked like the occupation was settling down nicely for the duration by the time I left. The fact of the matter is these are serious issues and time is very short indeed. When management collude with the police to victimise migrant workers we don't have the time to observe certain niceties as in some cases this is literally life and death.

At one point the director objected to the idea that he should not have assisted the immigration police because it would have "caused chaos". One woman replied from the crowd said "In this case chaos would have been the better virtue" and I could not agree more.

The anarchic nature of the forcible meeting with the director (where one woman suggested to the director's face that the French had a good idea when they kidnapped their bosses) and the occupation were at times a little, cough, ad hoc, but where it occasionally lacked sharpness this was more than made up for in energy and direction of purpose.

If we are to gain justice for migrant workers we have to act. SOAS management have it within their power to protect their workforce from victimisation, sadly it does not seem that this is something to which they will willingly agree.


Simple acts campaign, strangers into citizens, no one is illegal, national coalition of anti-deportation campaigns, Justice for SOAS cleaners.

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