The Sound of Neoliberalism: Cost-cutting Falls on Cleaners at Royal College of Music

“You give us a problem and we will solve it”. This is the claim Tenon Facilities Management makes on their website. So when the Royal College of Music wanted to reduce their costs they turned to Tenon, who offered the school a magical solution; work the vulnerable migrant cleaners harder for less money.

Behind the language of ‘innovation’ and ‘maximising efficiency’, the success of outsourcing firms like Tenon is built on a core principle; the systematic driving down of employees’ wages and rights. But there reaches a point where bodies are worked so hard they literally stop working; they break.

Last September, Wilson, a father of three from Ecuador, had the first of many panic attacks during one of his night shifts at the music school. He felt a sharp pain in his chest, he struggled to breathe and his vision became blurred. The timing of Wilson’s affliction was no coincidence. The attacks started soon after Tenon brought in the new contracts that cut all cleaners’ hours and income in half, resulting in an overwhelming workload.

Wilson and most of the other cleaners were already scraping together a living on multiple jobs, working through the night seven days a weeks. Cristobal left Ecuador 15 years ago when his mother developed a severe form of diabetes and now sends back whatever he can to support her medical treatment, explaining, “I know I can’t stop her illness but I can help her a lot.” While Ruben works 75 hours a week in order to provide for his family who live in a one bedroom flat in Brixton. As a result of Tenon’s sizeable cuts, they have been left with no option but to reject the new arrangements and are currently serving out their notice periods.

This is not the first time their contracts have been changed without consultation; Tenon is the fourth company in five years to run this cleaning contract. Last year, with the help of the International Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the cleaners overturned a proposal to change the times of their shifts; a decision which, if passed, would have caused problematic clashes with their other jobs. Before Tenon took over the contract, Cristobal had over £1800 in unpaid wages, which he only received when IWGB stepped in and started legal proceedings against cleaning contractor, Kingdom.

According to Tenon’s website, one thing that sets them apart from other contractors is their “unobtrusive housekeeping”. By this, they mean that they make it easy for people to pretend that the people who clean up after them don’t exist. All of the stock images on the website are conveniently cropped or angled so that none of the outsourced workers have a face.

The Royal College of Music wants their workers to remain faceless. Despite repeated attempts, Wilson has never had a face-to-face meeting with anyone from management. He loves music and is a singer himself but has never been invited to one of the institution’s world famous concerts. When his dad died last year and he had to take a few days off to arrange the funeral, no one sent a message to offer their condolences or ask if he was okay.  

At a protest last Thursday, Wilson stood outside the college in the rain and spoke into a mic. He hoped the people attending a concert by renowned maestro Bernand Haitink might hear his words: “I clean your offices and your teaching rooms. I am a part of this college.” But outsourcing allows management to deny that cleaners are part of the institution, producing what journalist Aditya Chakrabortty describes as a system of economic apartheid.

Everyday, Wilson wears a thick bronze ring with tiny silver shapes soldered onto its surface. His best friend gave it to him when he left Ecuador 14 years ago as a lucky charm. He observes that given his recent circumstances, the charm seems not to have worked.

But what is happening to Wilson and his colleagues isn’t a matter of good or bad luck. This isn’t a case of one rogue company with mean bosses and bad practices, but the failures of an entire model of work.

As long as companies are competing for contracts – promising ever lower prices with workers seen as a cost to be minimised – the wellbeing of people like Wilson will continue to be sacrificed in the name of profit. In the meantime, we can support them in the fight back as IWGB prepares tribunal claims against Tenon and the Royal College of Music.

Published 16th February 2018

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