University Forced to Back Down After ‘Rogue’ Outsourcing Company Tries to Ban Protest

Police were called on workers protesting cuts.

by Polly Smythe

13 December 2023

Police officers attend a demonstration of outsourced security workers at UCL. Photo: courtesy of @SeanAWallis on X/Twitter
Police officers attend a demonstration of outsourced security workers at UCL. Photo: courtesy of @SeanAWallis on X/Twitter

A “rogue” outsourcing company has been forced to withdraw a “draconian anti-protest policy” that it created “without the full consent” of its client, after police were called on low-paid university staff.

On 1 December, three days before a planned protest by the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) trade union over cuts to the sick pay of outsourced security guards, trade unions at UCL received a new “policy” from Bidvest Noonan. The document set out the security contractor’s “expectations of appropriate behaviour” from students, staff, and trade unions during strike and protest action on campus.

Among the behaviours designated as “inappropriate and or reckless behaviour” by the policy were any activity that causes “interference with the effective business and operations of the university.” Also listed is the use of “paraphernalia” that could pose a “threat to health, safety and well-being,” such as sound systems, sirens, megaphones, flares, flag poles, and “items deemed that can be weaponised [sic].”

Any UCL staff, students, or trade unions found to be in breach of the policy would be subject to disciplinary procedures. Following push-back from trade unions, the policy has been withdrawn.

The IWGB is in a longstanding battle with the university over the outsourcing of security guards to Bidvest Noonan.

The union called the timing of the policy’s announcement an “obvious attempt” to intimidate its members.

At the protest on 4 December, Bidvest Noonan senior management asked the gathered IWGB protesters to remove their banners, flagpoles, sound systems, flags, and megaphones from the premises.

When IWGB reps replied that Bidvest Noonan could not enforce the policy, as it had not been agreed by UCL or trade unions, Dominic Woodley, deputy operations manager for Bidvest Noonan at UCL, replied that the policy “had been agreed.”

The police were then called on the protest of about 60 people. Neither Bidvest Noonan nor UCL confirmed to Novara Media who had called them.

When asked by the IWGB why the police had been called, Mark West, UCL’s head of security, said “because you’re in breach of a policy that was issued to you last week.”

A spokesperson from the IWGB Universities of London Branch said: “We find it incredibly concerning that Bidvest Noonan, a private subcontracting company, is implementing a draconian anti-protest policy on a university campus without the full consent of the university itself.

“Bidvest Noonan acted in a reckless and unaccountable way, intimidating people exercising their democratic rights with no proper mandate. Their behaviour is in direct contradiction to the values of free speech and expression that UCL espouses.

“A private company overstepping its remit and cracking down on the freedoms of students, faculty and staff alike has no place on campus. UCL must bring workers in house and remove repressive, negligent subcontractors in order to be the free speech university it claims it is.”

A joint letter from the UCL’s UCU and Unite branches expressed concern that a “rogue outsourced employer can imperil the rights of UCL staff.”

“It is not the place of a subcontractor to create university policy,” said the letter. “This responsibility lies with the university’s governance structures, including consulting with the recognised campus trade unions.”

In response to the letter, UCL’s Provost and president Dr Michael Spence said: “This guidance produced and trialled by Bidvest Noonan was not intended to be a policy, and we have asked that Bidvest Noonan retracts the document while we review it with them.”

In June, Bidvest Noonan announced plans to fire 40 security guards at UCL, with the roughly 220 remaining guards having to reapply for their jobs, with “reduced conditions” in their contracts. Those changes include cuts from 60 to 42-hour weeks, representing a pay cut of £13,500 per year.

While Bidvest Noonan’s most recent filings show that their highest paid director was paid £435,000 for the year, the outsourcer has faced industrial action across the country over its low pay for frontline workers. Cleaners have taken strike action on the C2C trains and on Greater Manchester’s Metrolink trams. In Glasgow and Aberdeen, strike action was narrowly avoided after workers who clean and refuel buses for First Bus accepted an increased pay deal.

A UCL spokesperson said: “UCL views the right to protest, debate and challenge ideas as fundamental to freedom of speech, and we are committed to ensuring that our students and staff are able to express their views and opinions in a legal, safe and respectful way.

“In line with this long-standing tradition, each year we support our societies, student groups and staff to host 1,000’s of speaker events. This includes protests and strikes, which must be organised with fair warning, so we can ensure the health, safety or welfare of employees, students or visitors.

“At the same time, our community is also entitled to an environment free from harassment or intimidation of any kind and this is set out clearly in our policies and we want to ensure a reasonable environment on campus to enable our teaching and research.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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