Monday, June 15, 2009

SOAS occupation: chaos the better virtue

Just got back from SOAS where around thirty people are occupying the director's office in support of those cleaners who were arrested by immigration police on Friday.

The cleaners, who work for private company ISS, were called into a dawn meeting by management on Friday morning. The police, who were laying in wait for them, swooped out and seized nine cleaners - my understanding is that six have now been deported and three others are under threat of deportation, including a woman who is six month's pregnant and a sick woman in her sixties who had a heart attack whilst in custody.

The company who is in a struggle to break the union had previously sacked the grassroots trade unionist Stalin Bermudez who had been waging a very effective campaign for a decent living wage for cleaners at SOAS and elsewhere. This move is clearly part of finishing the union off by deporting trouble makers and cowing the others.

Immigration controls are often used to divide and rule with migrant workers being among the most vulnerable and most poorly paid. The answer is not to demand British Jobs for British Workers but to throw an arm around migrant workers and ensure they get paid the same, are welcomed into the unions and that any attempt to use immigration laws against trade unionists is resisted tooth and nail.

The management was clearly complicit in the arrests at best and helped organise them at worst. The university was informed that the police were coming and they gave permission for the raid to take place and, to some unknown extent, assisted in the ambush that had been laid for their staff.

The demonstration that was called for this morning heard from various excellent speakers one of whom compared these cleaners to the tolpuddle martyrs. Of course the comparison is not exactly direct - after all the martyrs were given a trial before they were deported.

At this point the SOAS workers attending the demo announced they were to hold a union meeting and someone else suggested we put our demands to the management direct, so around thirty to forty of us marched up to the director's office and had a bit of a business meeting with him.

We discussed his role in the arrests, his support for farming out cleaning to a private company, what he could have done to prevent the arrests and what he was willing to do to repair the damage that had been done. It was an emotional meeting on both sides, the director was clearly unhappy with having his office occupied and a bunch of plebs talking to him like an equal and we were unhappy that trade unionists had been deported to Latin American countries including Colombia.

We also put it to him that Stalin Bermudez should be reinstated. He disagreed. Read the full list of demands here.

Now I have a confession. Even as we marched into office I was thinking 'oh, I really need the loo' and eventually I couldn't take it anymore and nipped out to get some relief. It's not the most heroic episode of the day I grant you but wetting myself might have been misinterpreted and certainly a little anti-social for those who'd have to share a cramped space with me so I think it was for the best.

By the time I came back the door was locked and there was a guard posted there not allowing anyone back into the occupied zone. It was all non-violent direct action so it just wouldn't have been appropriate to karate chop the guard down and kick open the door, although if Hollywood ever make a big screen version they might like to write that bit in.

Instead I hung about outside the door and told people who were thinking of leaving that they wouldn't be able to get back in, which meant a couple of people didn't come a cropper at least. Eventually the occupation asked the director to leave as they had things to be getting on with and after a bit of toing and froing that's what happened.

Banners were hung up out the windows and it looked like the occupation was settling down nicely for the duration by the time I left. The fact of the matter is these are serious issues and time is very short indeed. When management collude with the police to victimise migrant workers we don't have the time to observe certain niceties as in some cases this is literally life and death.

At one point the director objected to the idea that he should not have assisted the immigration police because it would have "caused chaos". One woman replied from the crowd said "In this case chaos would have been the better virtue" and I could not agree more.

The anarchic nature of the forcible meeting with the director (where one woman suggested to the director's face that the French had a good idea when they kidnapped their bosses) and the occupation were at times a little, cough, ad hoc, but where it occasionally lacked sharpness this was more than made up for in energy and direction of purpose.

If we are to gain justice for migrant workers we have to act. SOAS management have it within their power to protect their workforce from victimisation, sadly it does not seem that this is something to which they will willingly agree.

Links:

Simple acts campaign, strangers into citizens, no one is illegal, national coalition of anti-deportation campaigns, Justice for SOAS cleaners.

Twitter updates
. (Thanks to Tami for the photo of the inside of the occupation)
Please also sign the petition.
Some video footage.

5 comments:

Strategist said...

I hope the student body at SOAS will give this one all they've got. It's winnable and indeed must be won.

Seems to me the absolute minimum demand is that ISS are kicked off campus and cleaning is brought in-house with recruitment from the existing staff.

The head on a plate of the person at SOAS who OK'd this raid would be good too.

Adam Ramsay said...

This is absolutely outrageous. Well done to the occupiers and all supporters. We can't allow universities to break unions using the border agency.

Benjamin Solah said...

Wow, this is really full on. Good on you guys for doing something and occupying.

Strategist said...

Lenin's Tomb is reporting that the students have won, the SOAS authorities conceding all their demands.

How about that? What a win! Well done to all concerned.

JOINT STATEMENT FROM SOAS AND STUDENTS’ UNION

Dear staff and students

Following the protest by students about Friday’s visit by the UK
Border Agency, we are pleased to confirm that a way forward has been
agreed by all parties involved.

The events surrounding last Friday have been deeply distressing for
everyone at SOAS and in particular the individuals who were detained.
Furthermore, we are disturbed by allegations that have emerged about
the possible role that ISS played in the visit.

We have agreed the following:

SOAS will write directly to the Home Secretary within 12 hours of the
end of the protest, requesting that he grants exceptional leave to
remain in the UK to those cleaners who are still being detained. In
addition, SOAS will request the immediate return of those who have
been deported and exceptional leave to remain for those forced into
hiding by Friday’s raid.

SOAS will open discussions with ISS, and separately with UNISON, UCU
and the SU, to review in detail the events of last Friday.

SOAS will discuss the possibility of bringing cleaning services
in-house at the next scheduled meeting of its Governing Body.

SOAS will meet with the relevant unions to discuss health and safety
issues relating to immigration raids and acknowledge UCU policy of
non-compliance with immigration raids.

SOAS will not take action against those involved in the protest.

This incident has highlighted the need for further debate regarding
this issue and, as has been mentioned in earlier correspondence, SOAS
will be speaking with other heads of universities about the wider
implications of the Government's policy on immigration and any likely
impact it may have on our staff and students.

We recognise the valued contribution of all migrants who have worked
at SOAS over the years and have a long tradition of welcoming people
from all over the world. In our personal capacity, we would also like
to indicate our support for the regularisation of non-documented
workers.

We would like to thank all staff and students for their valued
contributions, support and co-operation in recent days as we have
worked towards this agreement.


Professor Paul Webley
Director and Principal

Nizam Uddin
Co-President Students’ Union

Jim Jay said...

My correspondent tells me;

The settlement reached is as follows:

1.SOAS will write directly to the Home Secretary within 12 hours of the end of the protest, requesting that he grants exceptional leave to remain in the UK those cleaners who are still being detained. In addition, SOAS will request the immediate return of those who have been deported and exceptional leave to remain for those forced into hiding by Friday's raid.

2. SOAS will open discussions with ISS, and separately with UNISON, UCU and the SU, to review in detail the events of last Friday.

3. SOAS will discuss the possibility of bringing cleaning services in-house at the nest scheduled meeting of its Governing Body.

4. SOAS will leet with the relevant unions to discuss health and safety issues relating to immigration raids and acknowledge UCU policy of non-compliance with immigration raids.

5. SOAS will not take action against those involved in the protest.

Numbers 1 and 3 were of most importance to the cleaners at SOAS given the immanent threat of forcible removal or deportation from Britain, Marina, one of the detained cleaners, is facing. She could be flown away as early as tomorrow (now today). http://freesoascleaners.blogspot.com/2009/06/send-this-letter-to-home-office-now.html This links to a template letter that can be sent to the Home Secretary and Phil Woolas, so if you have a minute send it asap. I have done so, along with a personalised section, too. We can all also contact our MPs (even Tories!) asking them to lobby on behalf of the detained cleaners and those forced into hiding.