UCL’s outsourcing policy is a calamity for security guards: How workers are joining the IWGB union to oppose it
University College London (UCL) is facing new pressure over its staff outsourcing policy. This follows several successful in-house campaigns at London universities, including SOAS, KCL, and Goldsmiths where a trade union campaign ensured that Goldsmiths’ cleaners would became directly employed by the University in September 2018. UCL outsource their security guards to the company Axis Security Services. But change is afoot.
Security guards at UCL have struggled under Axis and are demanding to be brought in‑house. Nearly 100 guards have signed an open letter to the Provost, Michael Arthur, citing numerous problems, including Axis’ ‘chaotic’ handling of holiday pay and taxes, costing some workers thousands of pounds in total.
Noah [the name has been changed for anonymity], a UCL guard I interviewed, said “not a lot has changed” since he started working on campus five years ago. Issues over pay, holidays and indignity at work recur again and again. Many of his colleagues share this sentiment.
To Noah, the case is clear: “Axis is not very bothered about staff welfare, they are just here to make sure they maximise their profits.” UCL’s policy enables this exploitation.
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and student activists have organised to support the security guards in preparing to campaign for better conditions. With guards spread over 70 buildings and multiple, often inconsistent, shifts, workers have previously faced higher hurdles in getting organised at UCL than other campuses. But, according to Danny Millum, branch secretary of the IWGB’s University of London branch, guards approached the union en masse stating their dissatisfaction with conditions at UCL after seeing a similar IWGB-led campaign against outsourcing at Senate House.
IWGB organisers and activists have, since this meeting, built relationships with security guards, forming networks for legal and emotional support. Noah told me IWGB representatives made a “significant difference” as they “keep on going until they get answers”.
“They’ve helped us a lot in terms of writing to Axis managers and the UCL senior management, questioning what’s going on, fighting our cases, even getting some people’s pay issues sorted”, he said. This has brought him hope for change.
Matthew Lee, a UCL Politics, Sociology and East European Studies student helping the union, told me about the good relationship between guards and students: “Any UCL student knows that security are really helpful and friendly”, he remarked. In his view “it’s pretty dreadful that they [guards] are treated in this way and they are put on this different tier to other workers and discriminated against.”
Security guards’ solidarity and confidence has increased through the IWGB’s success in resolving short-term problems. Yet, Millum stressed that long-term campaigns are necessary to “challenge the root causes of these problems.”
Outsourcing is indicative of how Universities increasingly act more like businesses than public institutions. While students are treated as customers and suffer from regressive policies, penny‑pinching managers also choose to disavow their duty of care to employees. Lee told me: “we found out recently that, according to the Office For Students, UCL has 354 staff earning above £100k yearly … they’re earning that ridiculous amount of money from our [tuition] fees, yet they cannot bring their outsourced workers in-house, even though the vast majority of our students definitely support that … it’s pretty dreadful.”
UCL’s outsourcing policy also directly shows the university management’s complicity in fuelling discrimination. Most security guards are from BAME and migrant backgrounds. They are treated as second class employees, despite the “global, liberal academic institute”-image UCL tries to forge, according to Millum.
The aim for security guards is simple and fair. In Noah’s words, “we just want to work in a healthy working environment where our rights are protected”. Yet this struggle for dignity has harshened for all university workers in recent years. UCL cleaners have also faced discrimination, including the proposed implementation of a biometric time management system. This was slammed as “excessive, discriminatory, and a violation of privacy” in a petition signed by every cleaning staff member on the Institute of Education site where the fingerprint system is being trialed.
The campaign to end outsourcing at SOAS took an astounding 12 years to achieve victory. This illustrates the discriminatory, profit-driven system that operates at our universities, harming staff and students.
Despite the challenges the security guards and their union the IWGB face in improving conditions at the university, Millum is confident it can be done after successful campaigns led by the union at the University of London. Millum also emphasised the importance that “the public and those who come to UCL … realise the reality of what goes on in the underbelly of the university. It is a massively discriminatory university and UCL’s senior management are able to get away with this because no one is questioning it.”
A UCL spokesperson said: “We are aware of some issues raised by security staff and have been working closely with the contractor to resolve these as a matter of urgency. Many of these were due to teething problems at the beginning of the new contract and have already been resolved. New processes are now in place to ensure that any concerns are dealt with in a timely manner. An apology has been sent by the contractor to all staff.”
How can YOU get involved?
Contact IWGB and the workplace campaigns they run in and around London. Every week, students run breakfast stalls for security and cleaning staff to come and get help with problems at work where you can help out. IWGB have also run trainings for activists to learn how to help with resolving employment issues. Get in touch to bring the workers in-house!