Unions fight new forms of exploitation with new ways of organising

For the first time in UK history, a coalition of four unions have come together in a day of action against outsourcing

Over the past few decades, outsourcing has increasingly defined the public sector’s relationship to workers, and has played a major part in widening the gap between the richest and the poorest. The likes of G4S, Serco, and Capita are now some of the most valuable companies in the UK.

These large outsourcing companies extract profit off the backs of their workers in a form of super-exploitation, through offering workers much lower standards for pay, holiday entitlements, sick pay and pension contributions. The profit motive embedded in their logic also drives them to increasingly risky behaviours, exemplified by the collapse of Carillion last year. MPs accused the directors of Carillion of recklessness, hubris and greed” in the pursuit of their own rewards ahead of all other concerns – and yet the government has shown no appetite for ending the practice, which has resulted in the number of outsourced workers in the UK ballooning to over 3.3 million – more than the total number of those employed in the British manufacturing sector.

The privatisation of our public services has also led to a collapse in the quality of those services. The Ministry of Justice has come under fire for the privatisation of the prison probation service, which resulted in the outsourcing company Working Links collapsing. In a foreword to the inspection report of the probation service in the South West, Dame Glenys Stacey passed this damning indictment: We have found professional ethics compromised and immutable lines crossed because of business imperatives”.

Ending outsourcing would strike at the rotten heart of neoliberalism, and would end a particularly rapacious practice that has contributed in part to the longest period of wage stagnation in 200 years. This is why today’s national demo against outsourcing is so significant.

These large outsourcing companies extract profit off the backs of their workers in a form of super-exploitation

The demonstration is organised by four unions forming a particularly sharp spearhead in the battle against outsourcing: the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) who represent cleaners at the University of London; United Voices of the World (UVW) representing cleaners at the Ministry of Justice; the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS BEIS) Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy branch representing cleaners, security, catering staff and others; and the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) London Regional Council. Apart from the RMT, all the unions are also participating in a one-day strike. These unions are demanding an end to outsourcing, as well as the insecurity, discrimination and low pay endemic in the management practice in their places of work.

New forms of exploitation need new forms of organisation to fight them. What makes these insourcing campaigns so fascinating are the way the unions have responded to a changing and hostile environment to organise so effectively. Despite their small size, these new unions are winning campaign after campaign for their members – most of whom are migrant people of colour who have been overlooked by large parts of the wider union movement, and scapegoated by those who blame low wages on migrant workers rather than exploitative bosses.

The IWGB have employed a remarkably effective mix of strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, and court cases to secure a living wage, and decent conditions for their members. In December 2018 the union called for a strike at the University of London, asking the academic community to show solidarity with their fellow workers by refusing to hold seminars or talks at the site. So far it has proved to be a powerful tool in the campaign – with 370 academics, 40 councillors, six MPs, and a number of politicans (including Sian Berry, Frank Field, and John McDonnell) pledging solidarity and supporting the boycott. In total, around 170 events at the university have been relocated, drastically effecting the functioning of the university, and showing how small unions can leverage power outside of strike action.

New forms of exploitation need new forms of organisation to fight them.

Margarita Cunalata is an IWGB union rep and a cleaner at the University of London. She is organising workers at the university to demand they are brought in-house, and says:

I’ve been working for six years as a cleaner at the University of London and still they treat me as a second class worker, with far worse terms and conditions than staff directly employed by the university. I’m going to keep on fighting until all of us outsourced workers get a fair deal and are brought in-house.”

The steely determination in Margarita’s voice is not without merit. In recent years, the IWGB and their sister union UVW have had significant victories at the University of London Senate House, London School of Economics, Ernst & Young, and the Daily Mail.

At the New Economics Foundation, we recognise our own role to play in this change. We have designed an insourcing toolkit for public sector managers who recognise the corrosive effects of outsourcing and who wish to explore the possibility of reversing the trend, which provides a step-by-step guide for public managers to bring workers back in-house.

One particularly insidious effect of outsourcing is its disciplinary function: it serves to atomise workers and diminish their ability to organise. But unions rely on different tactics: collective action, solidarity boycotts, highly-publicised campaigns, and statements of support from across society. Time and time again they prove that changes to working conditions have to be made on a collective basis.

Image: Istvan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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