Students have occupied the directorate in the main college building at SOAS after news that the refectory, one of SOAS’ common areas, will be closed after August 1st 2017, resulting in redundancies.
The news was given on Monday during a meeting with “some, but not all” catering staff at SOAS and Elior UK management, the company in charge of catering in the school, according to the statement of occupation put out by the activists.
The occupation, organized by the Justice for Workers campaigners, started yesterday afternoon and their refusal to leave the room after management threats has resulted in a lock-down. Security guards have been placed by the entrance doors to ensure nobody leaves the room nor joins the campaigners.
A source has confirmed to London Student that they have access to water and toilet facilities, but the only way of getting food inside the room is by lifting it with a rope and through the windows.
The demands put forward are of “no cuts, no closures, no redundancies”; the betterment of the workers’ contracts; a democratic decision on the future of the refectory and a public apology from Valerie Amos, the director of the institution.
SOAS Management has responded by stating that “Elior will continue to provide catering services at SOAS until around September 2018” but that “with this in mind, we [SOAS Management] have decided to make a number of changes to the current catering offer at SOAS. These changes will directly affect the College Building food arrangements.”
The nature of these changes has not been specified. However, some members of staff have already received redundancy letters, according to SOAS Justice for Workers. Another worker has confirmed that she was invited to meet with Elior HR and given a letter informing her that after the refectory shut down she will be re-allocated. She is aware of colleagues who have received letters of redundancy.
Further communication from the school has raised concern over “the effect this has had on staff working on site at SOAS” and “the impact on our staff who work in the office space that has been occupied”. An inside source has expressed the general concern, confirmed during the rally, of the activists over the school’s threats:
“They have threatened [the occupiers] with legal action if we don’t leave by the end of the day when they could be using their efforts to actually remove the issues we have raised”.
The campaigners refuse to engage in dialogue until their demands of freedom of movement in and out of the occupied area and access to food are met. They claim they will remain inside the building until their further demands are answered.
During the rally, one of the workerss expressed gratitude on behalf of his colleagues for the support offered by the students and concern over SOAS’ response:
“We are outraged with our company and with the administration at SOAS. The treatment we have received is disrespectful and degrading, we deserve respect, as workers who have been a part of this community for long. […] They [the administration] infringe our rights when they hire our services through an outsourced company when they could be providing these services themselves. Neither SOAS employees nor the university community had any knowledge of what was going on.” (Translated from Spanish)
The situation has been particularly damaging as the news of the changes in the agreement with Elior come on the eighth anniversary of the deportation of 9 SOAS workers, caught by the border authorities while they assisted a meeting in one of the school’s lecture theatres.
The staff affected are moving towards industrial action and aiming to go on strike by graduation. LS has contacted SOAS management but has not received any further comments on the situation.