Artists and academics have signed an open letter calling on the University of the Arts London (UAL) to “treat cleaners fairly”, expressing their “grave concern around the conditions” workers face at one of the capital’s largest art and design institutions.
The letter is the latest salvo in UAL: End Outsourcing, a campaign run jointly between the GMB and Unison unions which launched in 2018. It states that “for nearly two decades, cleaners at the university have been outsourced to a string of unaccountable private companies. As a result, cleaners have experienced inferior working conditions to those of directly employed staff, including poor, inconsistent and incorrect pay”.
The letter also claims that “the majority of outsourced cleaning staff are women who come from Black, minority-ethnic and migrant backgrounds”. The signatories ask that “UAL ends its racist outsourcing practices and commits to bringing cleaners in house by the end of this current contract, affording them the same pay, terms and conditions as directly employed workers at the university”.
The British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong, who created a permanent commission for the London underground last year, is among the signatories. He tells The Art Newspaper: “I signed the letter because I empathise with the workers. My mum did loads of cleaning jobs in the past, a lot of family have (some still do) and I've done a lot of cleaning jobs before. Unfortunately more often than not such folk are treated like shit and at the bottom of the pecking order.
“The irony is workers like cleaners do important work, key work. Without them so many places fall apart. It’s like folk have forgotten the workers that kept things going during the lockdowns, so it's important that institutions like UAL for example recognise that, buck their ideas up and honour the cleaners.”
The artist and academic Zish Alexander says: “While lecturers are highly visible staff, teaching is impossible without the fundamental work undertaken by UAL cleaners. Without their daily efforts to maintain and reset the learning environment, we will fall below adequate standards and our students will suffer. If we care for the wellbeing of our students, what of those who maintain the environment in which we all labour?” Other artists supporting the cleaners’ cause include Jade Montserrat and the joint Turner prizewinner Tai Shani.
A spokesperson for UAL says: “Working with external specialist partners is often the most effective way to provide the highest quality services for our staff and students—often better than we could achieve in-house. We have, and continue to be, open to maintaining a dialogue with the trade unions on this important matter.”
She adds that following a rigorous 18-month procurement process, during which more than 100 stakeholders were consulted, UAL selected OCS as its cleaning and securities management partners. “We take steps to ensure working conditions for contract staff are kept under careful review and are in line with good practice. We work closely with suppliers so they can quickly address any concerns raised,” the spokesperson adds.
“UAL has paid the London Living Wage since 2014 and we are committed to including the new Living Hours Standard as part of the employee benefits in our current contract. This guarantees the right to a minimum number of hours to outsourced staff, as well as four weeks’ notice before changes to their rota. The contract also incorporates a minimum of thirty days holiday, plus bank holidays, and up to ten days paid sickness leave in their terms and conditions.”