Receptionists, security guards, porters and post-room staff at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in London have joined cleaners and caterers in striking for better pay and conditions, marking a significant escalation in the dispute.
The workers are employed by the contractors ISS and Aramark, who run security, catering, cleaning and support services at BEIS.
The cleaners and caterers have been on indefinite strike since 15 July. The security guards, porters and reception staff are on strike until 13 September, and will take rolling strike action in the form of one week on strike, one week off, from 30 September.
The strikers are demanding the London living wage and sick pay. Some have been left in such a precarious financial situation that their union, the PCS, set up food bank donations inside the BEIS offices on Victoria Street.
The PCS is calling for all contracted workers at government departments to be brought back in-house and to be paid a civil service wage.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS, said: “This is a long-running strike and what we’ve got here are people all working for private contractors being treated appallingly. They are demonstrating just how badly workers are treated in the public sector; they don’t get the London wage and do jobs that are taken for granted. But they are determined to be treated properly and paid a living wage.”
The union said BEIS faced massive disruption as all catering facilities in the building are suspended and conference and staff entrances are closed.
Spirits were high on the noisy and vibrant picket line, where strikers sounded vuvuzelas and cheered when speakers demanded that the government and contractors paid workers a decent wage. One cleaner told the crowd: “I’ve been told the building is disgusting. It’s dirty, people cannot even go to the toilet because it’s dirty. My colleagues from cleaners, when we win, we have a lot of work to do.”
Mary, 42, who did not wish to give her real name, has been working as a caterer at BEIS for the past 12 years. “We’ve had the security guards join us, then the receptionists, and so on. I feel more powerful. The more people who join, the more they feel it in there,” she said, pointing at the BEIS building. She added the lack of sick pay has meant she is forced to come in when she is unwell because she cannot afford to miss a day’s wage.
Tony, 47, who also did not wish to give his real name, has worked as a security guard at BEIS for 16 years. “In that time period, I’ve had a pay rise of about £2.50,” he said. “This government department said they’d implement a London living wage, so why am I here today? I am not getting the living wage and I’ve got five children.” He said he would do “whatever it takes” to win the living wage and sick pay.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow secretary of state for business, said: “The one department that is supposed to be responsible for workers’ rights is treating its workers abysmally.” She added that such disputes would be at the heart of the upcoming general election.
She told the crowd at the picket on Thursday morning: “The fact that you’re out on strike in front of this department, that’s supposed to be a beacon across the world, is absolute shambles. It’s shameful. But remember this, you’re not just striking for people in this department, you’re acting as an inspiration for people up and down the country.”
BEIS and the contractors ISS and Aramark have been approached for comment.