CHARLIE MACNAMARA reports on the ongoing Occupation at SOAS as workers and students clash with management over justice for SOAS workers.
On Monday 12 June students and workers at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) were attending a rally to commemorate the anniversary of the ‘SOAS 9’ — 9 migrant workers cruelly arrested and deported by the UK Border Agency at SOAS in 2009, abetted by SOAS’s management — when the management struck again with a shock announcement: the SOAS refectory is to be closed this August and a number of catering staff, already on zero-hour contracts, are to be made redundant. Later on Monday, students occupied the offices of the university’s directorate and on Tuesday 13 June catering staff held a walkout, with UNISON officially entering negotiations with SOAS management on their behalf, with future industrial action on the table.
The SOAS Justice for Workers campaign, backed by UNISON, UCU, and the SOAS Students’ Union, demand that no closures or redundancies are made, that there is a process of consultation over the future of the refectory, and that workers are brought back in-house to ensure future accountability. The Occupation continues in the face of harassment by management, and official negotiations between management and UNISON resume on Monday 19 June.
The refectory is the main in-house food provision available for students and staff at SOAS, serving affordable, hot food. It is currently run by the subcontractor Elior, whose contract is up for renewal in three months time in August 2017. The community at SOAS have been calling on management for some time to bring the Elior catering workforce back in house. Back in January, students and workers, anticipating the end of Elior’s contract, began discussing a set of demands to send to management.
SOAS Justice for Workers have been campaigning since January for fair pay for Elior catering staff — in parity with other workers at SOAS. Several related demands have been made alongside this: that management ensure food at the refectory is ethically sourced, and that management consult with the SOAS Students’ Union, UCU, and UNISON — the three unions that represent all members of SOAS’s community — before making any decisions regarding the refectory.
In March, Justice for Workers delivered a letter to management, inviting them to begin a consultation process over the refectory. Management did not respond. In May, Justice for Workers publicly set out their concerns and demands:
SOAS’s Executive Board responded to these demands in May with an assurance that Elior’s contract would be renewed in August for a further 12 months. This would theoretically ensure that Elior catering workers would not lost their jobs and would be able ‘to continue to work with Elior at SOAS’.
Despite all this, catering staff working in the Refectory were informed by Elior on Monday 12 June of the refectory’s imminent closure and their redundancy. Workers were told that all zero-hours staff are to be made redundant, and permanent staff will be moved to hospitality where their jobs will be at risk on account of overstaffing in other services.
Without any prior consultation with catering staff or with those who use the catering facilities, SOAS management had decided to end Elior’s contract, close the refectory, and sack a number of staff.
SOAS management have made a series of contradictory statements since the Occupation began on Monday, attempting to shift the blame and to intimidate the student protestors in the Occupation. In an email to SOAS staff and students on the evening of Monday 12 June, after the occupation had begun, management claimed: “We have categorically not made a decision to close the refectory in College Building”. Further, they stated, “We did not ask Elior to issue written notices to staff and give formal notice of specific changes, since this runs ahead of any decisions that have been made. We have made clear to Elior our strong concerns about this matter and the way they have conveyed information to staff”.
On Wednesday 14 June, the SOAS Registrar stated in an email, “No decision has been made to close the Refectory in College Buildings and we are very clear that in notifications to staff Elior have gone well beyond what has been discussed. In view of this, Elior will be rescinding the individual letters which have been sent to staff.”
While workers and students welcomed Elior rescinding Monday’s redundancy letters to catering staff, this was no commitment from management to maintaining the refectory or maintaining staff jobs in the future.Moreover, the letters sent by Elior made clear that SOAS management were aware of Elior’s redundancy plans before Monday, despite their attempts to claim otherwise and displace the blame: “We understand that SOAS have discussed these matters with Unison prior to the communication with staff on Monday and continue to seek engagement with them as the process moves forward”, state Elior in their Wednesday letter to catering staff. UNISON also vigorously deny any process of consultation or negotiation prior to Monday. They write in a public letter to SOAS management, “your continuing attempts to imply that UNISON have been involved in any way with discussions regarding the detailed future of the Elior contract are totally unacceptable and must be withdrawn”.
On Friday 16 June, UNISON’s negotiations with management seemed to approach a provisional agreement, but by the time UNISON emailed to get this confirmed in writing after the meeting, the deal they demanded was already off the table. SOAS management decided to drag out this process over the weekend, leaving catering staff in a state of insecurity, not knowing what will happen with their jobs. Negotiations resume on Monday 19 June.
The Occupation has been ongoing over the weekend, despite harassment from SOAS management and threats of repercussions to student protestors. On Tuesday 13 June, the Occupation received a threatening letter from management stating that, “This occupation is now unlawful and any licence you had to enter the premises is hereby revoked.” Since Wednesday, the management have brought in private security, who have, with questionable legality, restricted the Occupation’s access to food. On Sunday morning at 3am, the management set off fire alarms while security remained in force in the building, in an attempt to drive out the Occupation, causing intense psychological stress for student protestors.
Driving the Occupation is not just a desire to prevent cuts and redundancies, and to confront problematic industrial relations and behaviour towards students. The overriding issue is one regarding management culture and policy: SOAS management’s untrustworthy record is conclusive evidence of the need for more workforce representation, and control in decision making at SOAS and across our universities nationally. It likewise speaks volumes about the need for greater management accountability to the university community nationwide. For SOAS, accountability will only come through an end to outsourcing, when management can no longer shoddily shift the blame onto external organisations like Elior, and when the voices of workers and students are integrated into decision making processes.
Until workers are brought in-house it is all too easy for management to deny what should be unassailable commitments to workers – fair pay, and holiday and sickness benefits, for example. This is the hallmark of outsourcing: no matter what victories are won by workers, in five years time the contract will come up for renewal and all jobs might be lost. Institutions are able to act like this is not their responsibility, merely a inherent feature of the market. And this is why Justice for Workers are demanding not just guarantees over the refectory and catering staff jobs, but also a permanent end to outsourcing.
SOAS University trades off a reputation for radical, anti-colonial politics, but actually runs off exploiting its workforce. It furthermore has a history of intimidating and harassing this workforce, as we saw with the deportations in 2009, and again in 2015 when they attempted to intimidate union representatives. As Luis Carlos, a member of the Elior catering staff, said on Thursday, the university can give lectures and seminar courses about decolonisation, but this will always be undermined until they put this language into practice in their own community and support their workers.
While SOAS management seem intent on anti-worker, marketisation-driven policies and cuts, workers and students continue on in solidarity. The catering staff have made it one of their terms of negotiation that students involved in the Occupation must not experience repercussions for this action. Members of the Occupation have even cancelled flights home, enduring instead a week in physical confinement under intense psychological pressure in the name of this incredibly important cause.
The powerful speeches delivered at each evening’s rally have been accompanied by songs and a full samba band. On Wednesday, the Occupation held open participatory workshops running alongside the SOAS Open Day for prospective students, discussing among other things the history of worker struggle at SOAS. Friday night’s rally became a late night street party. And yesterday, on Sunday, they held a water fight, attended by students, workers and many of their families.
SOAS Justice for Workers clearly know how to run an occupation and their fight should give us all courage to demand fair and equal treatment for all.
Come show support as the Occupation push past the weekend and as negotiations resume today!
Jin Han Lee is a Korean artist born in Soeul who graduated with a PHD from the Slade in 2021. Her oil paintings challenge the limits of meaning and language, communicating experience through a deeply sensory medium.
Shaqúelle Whyte is a British figurative painter from Wolverhampton who recently graduated from the Slade before completing his MFA at the Royal College of Arts . His artworks explore the human condition in all its liminality, ambiguity and abstractions.