Consuelo Moreno is cleaning a hallway of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London while being filmed by Fernando González Mitjáns for his new documentary Limpiadores. As she mops the floor, Consuelo recounts the struggles she faces as an immigrant from Latin America and, in particular, the way SOAS speaks the language of equality, diversity and social justice while making a mockery of such discourse in the way it treats its own workers.
The camera pans out. Immediately behind Consuelo is an exhibition dedicated to the struggles of the poor in the Global South. One caption extols us to “challenge the status quo”. It is simultaneously poetic and abhorrent — the visual contradictions make the audience of SOAS students and staff at the film’s premier laugh nervously at such absurdity.
“Brand SOAS” makes millions of pounds each year speaking the language of anti-colonialism, teaching students the latest Marxist critiques of development, and positioning itself as the premier progressive university on issues of the Global South. This attracts a unique demographic of bright-eyed local and international students (hippies, socialists, anarchists, humanitarians and would-be politicians) who hope that SOAS will teach them how to make the world a better place.
SOAS makes a killing teaching one how to make the invisible visible. Yet until 10 years ago, when the Justice for Cleaners campaign began, the university had its own unique group of “invisible people”: the outsourced cleaning staff.
The campaign for the London Living Wage — a voluntary minimum wage meant to mitigate the ludicrous cost of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities — received the solidarity of the more active students and academic staff. After sufficiently shaming SOAS management, the wage increase was won along with the unionization of all cleaning staff.
Still, worker victories often come with institutional backlash. In the documentary, Consuelo recounts the day management called them to a meeting in a lecture hall only to hand them over to a surprise raid by the UK Boarder Agency who subsequently arrested and deported nine undocumented workers — one of whom was pregnant at the time.
This was the turning point in the campaign which resolved that in-sourcing was the only way they could avoid what academics call the “Triangle Trap”: the core labor relation behind the effectiveness of outsourcing.
Saving money through outsourcing?
Common belief holds that the main reason for outsourcing labor to another company is that it saves money.
As austerity has cut into public funds for everything except military and securitization, government institutions such as universities have mimicked the private sector in their quest to lower costs. This worldwide phenomenon hit British universities in the late 1990s under New Labour. At SOAS, this new economic context took the form of academic cuts, the introduction of student fees, and the dissolution of various University of London services and their outsourcing to private companies.
Within this context of austerity, the primary justification of SOAS management for the continued outsourcing of cleaning staff is that the alternative is fiscally imprudent. They claimed that bringing the cleaners in-house would cost at least £400,000 per year.
However, the campaigns continued. In October 2015, sparked by the threat of massive course cuts, dozens of students occupied the Brunei Suite, the university’s premier venue for corporate events and formal gatherings. The logic was to disrupt management’s revenue stream, thereby increasing pressure on them to rescind their £6.5 million austerity agenda.
As the university quickly backtracked on their plans for course cuts, the occupation focused its demands on disrupting a new tender process for an Integrated Facilities Management (IFM) company to take over all non-core services at the university and, as an alternative, supported the demand that cleaners be brought in-house. After more than two months of occupation, management eventually capitulated and agreed to hire an independent company to investigate the cost of bringing the cleaners in-house.
The gamble was this: we believed that, after crunching the numbers, in-sourcing the cleaners would not be significantly more costly than contracting profit-making service companies.
The gamble paid off.
In February, APSE, the company tasked with investigating the costs, presented the report to cleaners and their supporters. The outcome of the report was two-fold. Firstly, the cost difference of bringing the cleaners in-house when compared to the IFM tenders was negligible. In other words, the university had no economic incentive to continue outsourcing its cleaning staff.
Even more shocking, however, was the documentation of a previously unpublished report from Mott Macdonald which found that gross costs over five years would be £2.3 million cheaper than the current outsourcing contract with ISS Facility Services. SOAS management had lied when previously claiming that bringing the cleaners in-house would cost more.
Why would SOAS management go to such lengths to maintain the outsourcing of 62 cleaners if financial benefits are not a consideration, especially when considering the pressure from cleaners, students and other staff members that has resulted in a damaged brand and lost donations, as well as strikes, occupations, and other forms of civil disobedience that are estimated to have cost the university an estimated £500,000 in 2015 alone?
New Institutionalism drives a new governmentality
Higher education in the United Kingdom, once free, has begun to resemble the privatized university system in the United States. Accompanying austerity has been the marketization of the university under the trendy management approach known as New Public Management.
This approach is buttressed by a renewed focus on a development paradigm known as New Institutionalism — the belief by economists like Elinor Ostrom that institutional rules and norms are key drivers of successful public organizations. Key to building these rules and norms are management techniques focused on consumer-managerial accountability models.
However, one of the many things that this approach fails to take into account is the importance of power. Thus, instead of being driven by development concerns, New Public Management is best understood in terms of new technologies, genealogically sourced from Taylorism, to control workers and clients brought in the public sphere.
At SOAS, some examples of this process can be understood as follows. Firstly, the human resources department has created long, detailed and legalistic contract fine-print and disciplinary procedures that chart out the ‘proper’ conduct of employees and students. This has, for instance, been used in a number disciplinary hearings against students and staff after protests. The purpose of such HR strategies is less to punish those who break the rules (indeed disciplinary proceedings against protesting students and staff have almost always failed), but rather to push the internalization of self-discipline.
The same logic is behind the proliferation of CCTV surveillance, performance management appraisals, and research and education evaluations through pseudo-scientific university rankings. All such management strategies can be understood as Foucauldian practices in governmentality — i.e., the way power is exercised through “institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations and tactics.”
It is through this logic, rather than the stated drive to cut costs, that outsourcing at SOAS needs to be understood.
Outsourcing allows management to hand over oversight of workers to an external company. This company is then free not only to hire casual and non-unionized labor, but also to put in place stringent and repressive labor contracts. For instance, at SOAS, the cleaners have struggled to hold union meetings and interact informally with one another because of company regulations and since most workers have second jobs working divergent shifts.
Under the outsourcing model, cleaners grievances are often locked in bureaucratic limbo. If they approach the contracting company, their superiors claim their hands are tied by their contract with the university which sets their employment conditions. However, when cleaners approach the university, its management tell them to go speak with their real employers, the contractors. The abuses resulting from this “Triangle Trap” are besides the point; the real purpose of this relationship is its function as a disorganizing and disciplinary mechanism.
Outsourcing at SOAS has also been a divide and rule tactic which has separated the grievances of the cleaners from those of the security personnel, the graduate teachers and the full-time academics. In some cases, the struggles of one group have actually been framed by management as having negative consequences for others. This strategy has resulted in the fragmentation of struggles and a stakeholder approach to negotiations with management.
Disrupting technologies of management
Recent struggles at SOAS have made clear that worker casualization and outsourcing have little to do with saving the university money. Instead, austerity at SOAS has been used as a pretext for instituting governing technologies on the SOAS community. In fact, keeping a multi-tiered employment system has, as the APSE report has shown, actually cost the university more money. Yet the costs seem to be immaterial in their quest to maintain control over the governance of the university.
However, this past year, Baroness Valerie Amos, SOAS’ new Blairite director, has struggled to contain the alliance that has been built between a small group of progressive students, active academic staff, and the cleaners themselves. The occupation of a few months ago was controversial and at times vilified by many students and academics. Yet the power of such direct action should not be underestimated.
While the occupation ended with many of us demoralized by its seemingly limited effect beyond forcing management to bring in an independent auditor, in the medium-term the rules of the game have changed. Not only has the APSE report come out in favor of the cleaners’ demands, but the threat of a repeat occupation and other forms of disruption loom large in the consciousness of management.
The disruptions, however controversial, have brought renewed interest from students and academics, thereby leading to the pivotal rally at Goodenough College where a SOAS’ Board of Trustees meeting was disrupted. Protesters singled out Chairperson of the Board and rich London banker Tim Miller as the key impediment to the campaign. Indeed, he had previously said that “the cleaners would be brought in-house over my dead body.”
The result of the effective trolling of Miller as he walked out of the meeting was his resignation, written support from over thirty student societies, and finally a joint letter to management from over 200 SOAS academics demanding in-sourcing now. Trustees have since split with senior management over the issue.
Direct action gets the goods
Even while most students at SOAS care only minimally about issues such as the treatment of the cleaners and most academics are myopically concerned with their own research, disruption and unconventional forms of protest have allowed a small group of students, academic and non-academic workers to punch above their weight.
From road blockades by poor shackdwellers to eviction resistance by indebted families to occupations of public space, disruptive protest makes visible that which is hidden by the disciplinary modes of capitalist governance. In fact, direct action was the single most important important factor in South Africa’s landmark #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing protests in October last year.
In the case of SOAS, it has clarified that austerity is just as much about control as about money. The Troika’s disciplining of Syriza and Greece can therefore be seen as analogous to the new management practices at universities and other public institutions.
The jury is still out on bringing the cleaners in-house, with the next couple weeks being pivotal. On Tuesday, March 15, nine students attempted to occupy and disrupt the construction site for a SOAS building under renovation for its centenary celebrations. Police were called immediately and occupiers were only let go after an outpouring of students and faculty began protesting outside the site. Further plans for renewed protests and direct action are currently in the works.
Like the reverberating effect on other South African universities when the University of Cape Town agreed to end outsourcing in November last year, the decision at SOAS promises to improve the organizing capacity of workers and students within SOAS and impact the balance of forces at other British universities.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/soas-cleaners-campaign-neoliberal-university/