‘They want to silence us’: UAL is censoring posters about cleaners’ strike across its campuses

‘We were cleaners before. Now we are servants.’

University of the Arts London (UAL) is criticised for being “disingenuous” after removing posters supporting the outsourced cleaners’ strike “within hours”.

Starting from 2nd October, cleaners working for UAL were staging a five-day strike against the university’s treatment. Coordinated by two trade unions, their campaign UAL: End Outsourcing is calling to bring cleaners in-house for better working conditions.

The strikes were apparently met with censorship, with online posts on X (formerly Twitter) claiming to show the university removing campaign posters in “just a few hours” on 3rd October.

With the support of staff and students, UAL: End Outsourcing’ organised a picket line outside the London College of Communication (LCC) every morning for five days. Supporters also helped to put up posters across campuses.

Susan is among permanent UAL staff members supporting the campaign by joining the picket line and distributing leaflets to passers-by. According to her, the removal of posters wasn’t just a single occurrence: “This is happening on multiple sites. I know that posters at both LCC and CSM (Central Saint Martins) have been taken down in a very short amount of time.

Susan continued: “I think they want to silence us. They know this is a very busy time of the year and they won’t want any reputational damage.”

A protest board made by Susan

She added that students “are being confronted by UAL quite often if they’re seen putting up posters. They will be asked about credentials and names… But posters have never been taken down so quickly. They usually stay for at least a week. This happened within hours.”

Susan first learned about the strike from friends and social media during the pandemic. However, the movement dates to as far back as 2018 due to cleaners’ reportedly deteriorating working conditions, including an “increased workload, change to working patterns and locations without consultation, and difficulties in taking leave.”

Wellington, a cleaner who has worked at UAL for eight years, told The London Tab that the university has changed four managing companies during his time: “Each time when a new company comes, the conditions will become worse.”

He adds: “We were cleaners before. Now we are servants.”

Wellington emphasised that there is no protection for outsourced employees against unfair workloads: “You can’t say no [to the manager]. If you say no, they will start a process and there will be consequences.”

He continued: “We don’t get rights. We are like the rubbish.”

UAL cleaners on the picket line

The campaign has also accused UAL of racism, citing the fact that 78 per cent of its cleaners are from ethnic minority backgrounds and 64 per cent are migrants. But the university rejected the claim in 2021.

Addressing the matter of racism, Susan said: “I think it’s very disingenuous when the university basically presents itself as an anti-racist and social purpose university but can’t directly employ many staff.”

The campaign is reportedly facing another challenge from the current management company. According to Alex, a spokesperson for UAL cleaners and a branch secretary from the trade union GMB, the contracting firm has sought to break any attempts by staff to organise.

He said it: “Continually tried to undermine our activities by using draconian anti-trade union legislation. They’ve been trying to stop us from organising, having meetings, having strikes. They refuse to meet us, they refuse to talk to us, and they refuse to meet any demands.”

He also criticises UAL, claiming: “The university is completely silent.”

Alex continued: “The contract is going to end in 2026, so we are trying to pressure the university not to extend the contract or change company, but instead to in-house cleaners.” Yet, he added: “The university thinks that outsourcing is cheaper because it doesn’t need to pay much sick pay and other things. But I think they are actually spending a lot of money, which is going to the companies rather than cleaners.

According to him: “In-housing, in many ways, would be better for the university economically and ethically. It would be better for the community as well as the money will go to those people rather than a multinational corporation.”

A UAL spokesperson told The London Tab: “We don’t allow posters to go up in an unplanned manner across our estate. We will make sure that we improve clarity around the designated areas for strike-related materials across UAL and ensure that staff responsible for these areas and GMB know where the appropriate areas for posters are.

“When strike action took place last week members demonstrated outside UAL, which is their right.

“Regarding requests for credentials. We don’t have information about a specific incident, however, we do have security across our sites, so it’s possible that a student was asked if they study at UAL when they were putting up posters.

“Working with external partners, such as contract workers and third-party service providers, is often the most effective way to deliver high-quality services for our staff and students. These external specialists can offer expertise that surpasses what we could achieve in-house. By utilising contractors who specialise in specific areas of facilities services, we can efficiently adapt our services to the University’s evolving needs and benefit from their experience gained from working with other universities and beyond the academic sector.

“Our partnership with facilities management providers, like all our engagement of third parties, underwent a thorough tender process and we regularly review our service to ensure we consistently align with best practices and industry standards.

“Working with our contract provider, we guarantee fair pay through Living Wage accreditation (contracted staff earn at least the London Living Wage) and ensure predictable hours for our cleaners and facilities staff through the Living Hours standard. Staff employed by our contract provider receive 31 days annual leave including three at Christmas (plus Bank Holidays). This is the same annual leave as UAL staff at a comparable level.

“Our cleaning contract provider stresses that they operate within employment legislation and industry standard to maintain good working standards. Teams managers are on hand across UAL to support with any emerging issues. There’s also a helpline for matters of public interest to be escalated, displayed across notice boards and the employee handbook.

“UAL itself met with members of the contract providers team in July, to understand where there might be areas for improvement. Further meetings are scheduled for December.

“UAL values everyone who works with us, and we are committed to anti-racism and our anti-racism action plan.”

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