The Amey Five
Dirty deeds done dirt cheap: Immigrant cleaners: the “hard-to-organise” are selforganising
Workers in contract cleaning face low wages, a lack of basic employment rights, bullying
management and victimisation for union activities. However, especially among Latin
Americans, self-organisation has sustained struggles against the un-scrupulous
multinational companies who employ them, and against the immigration controls which are
used to sack un-wanted workers and victimise union acti-vists. Those struggles highlight
the inadequacy of the “organising model” of trades unionism promoted by the likes of
Unite! —- In DA43 we argued that the Justice4-Cleaners campaign organised by T&G/Unite!
had concentrated on “easy targets” and neglected small groups of workers in so-called
“hard to organise” workplaces.
Cleaners sacked by Amey at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington outside
London, and those working for Lancaster at Schroders bank and for Mitie at Willis
insurance company in the City of London have organised themselves, and showed up the union
and why it finds such workers “hard to organise”.
The Amey Five
The Amey cleaners were the first to “go it alone” with the help of supporters, inspiring
other workers to orga-nise without support from Unite! They were transferred to Amey when
it took over the cleaning contract at NPL on 1st Decem-ber 2006. They joined T&G/ Unite!
after their previous employer, PKM, told them Amey was a bad company. So 28 of the 38
workers joined the union; a full time official told them not to worry, that Amey would
recognise the union and honour their TUPE [Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of
Employment)] terms, but did nothing.
Amey thought it impossible that cleaners were paid £7.03 an hour but the lab is a high
risk area due to the experiments carried out there and specialist health and safety
training is required. After four months Amey tried to cut staffing levels and, on 27th May
2007, workers were invited to a “health and safety training session” where the doors were
locked and 60 police and immigration officials carried out paper checks. Seven workers
didn’t have the right papers, were arrested and sacked. Two were deported to Brazil; a
third to Colombia; a fourth was detained. (These are the correct figures for this
incident; those cited in DA43 are inaccurate.) They weren’t replaced and within a month
there were only 22 workers left to do the same amount of work.
As a result of a grievance, Amey promised to hire six more workers but only hired three.
More workers resigned because of the increased workload and were not replaced. On 19th
June 2008 Amey tried to change shift times to end at 9.55 instead of 9.45, breaking TUPE
terms. On 20th June three agency temps were hired but not given the specialised induction
on the safety risks in the lab. Usually a security guard opened a special gate to allow
cleaners to leave the premises but when one temp finished late they found it locked and
jumped over the wall. The individual was sacked, and the other cleaners were forced by the
manager to leave by another gate, causing them to miss their train back to London.
The workers took out another grie-vance, met the manager and got her to back down over the
gate. A promised meeting to discuss a proper solution never happened and Amey unilaterally
changed the shift times and exit gate. The workers distribut-ed a leaflet to the
laboratory’s staff asking for solidarity against these changes on 28th July. The next day
the ten workers who’d taken part were suspended. The five main union organisers were
sacked on 5th September; the others were threatened with the sack to prevent them
supporting the five. Their ap-peal, heard on 7th November, was rejected in writing on the
18th. The speed of the disciplinary procedure contrasted with the grievance procedure;
they got the response to their grievance lodged on 20th June when they were dismissed.
Although the five had joined PROSPECT to link up with NPL employees, they were
dissatisfied with the representation they got. In February 2009 they lodged an application
to an Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of
nationality. Amey offered £1,000 between the five, who had demanded £40,000, then raised
the offer to £3,000 in total. The workers then demanded £5,000 each and were told £3,000
was the final offer. PROSPECT told them to accept this and put solicitors off representing
them. The workers decided that, rather than accept the offer, they would fight on and
Their campaign was sustained by support from the Latin American Workers Association
(LAWA), No Borders and the Campaign Against Immigration Controls. Other supporters have
included SF members from the two London locals. Noisy pickets were organised at Amey’s
offices in Bristol, London, Oxford and elsewhere, and at events organised or attended by
NPL, to embarrass them into taking responsibility for Amey’s actions. Pickets at NPL
itself got a sympathetic res-ponse from some workers, although some objected to NPL being
associated with Amey’s actions and management instructed them not to get involved. A
protest and “teach in” by 80 students and staff were also held on 4th December 2008 at
Kingston University, to coincide with an award given to Mel Ewell, Chief Executive of Amey
on £970,000 a year, one of its most successful graduates. This is in contrast to the “do
nothing” approach of the trades unions and helped to make the workers less “disposable”.