UCL cancels outsourced workers’ Black History Month event with one day’s notice

SOAS agreed to host the panel event at the last minute

UCL reportedly cancelled a Black History Month event organised by the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) Union with one day’s notice.

The four-person panel event was originally supposed to take place in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre at the UCL Bloomsbury Campus, but the booking was cancelled just one day before by the UCL administration.

UCL claims the booking was never confirmed in their system and that organisers failed to follow due process for room bookings.

The IWGB Union, alongside Black Lives Matter (BLM) UK and Indian Labour Solidarity (ILS), had planned a panel event for October 27th titled “Visible Segregation: Outsourcing at UCL and in UK Higher Education.” After the room booking was cancelled, a last-minute location was found at the Brunei Gallery, in neighbouring SOAS University’s campus.

Since Summer 2023, security staff, aided by the IWGB, have been protesting the discriminatory outsourcing practices of UCL management and affiliated companies. The action began after UCL and Bidvest Noonan, the university’s primary subcontractor for security guards, set in motion its joint transformation of security services at UCL, in consultation with UNISON, the recognised trade union. However, this has resulted in “worse conditions and fewer hours” according to the IWGB, with many security guards reportedly facing losses of up to £13,500 a year because of cuts to their hours.

A security guard, who has worked at UCL for a decade, commented on the booking cancellation that “UCL is doing everything they can to restrict [our] connection between students and staff.”

Currently, UCL is one of the few universities in London that still outsources a portion of its staff. It began doing so 20 years ago, before which security officers and cleaners were directly employed by UCL. Back then, security staff were paid between £16 to £18 per hour. Now, their average pay is around £13/hr, representing a significant deterioration in salary over time.

A similar wave of strikes took place in 2019, after which UCL established pay parity between in-house and outsourced staff, ensuring the same pay scale, holiday entitlements and sick pay for both groups of employees. However, the IWGB contends that there are still loopholes in this provision such as the lack of childcare.

During their speeches, ILS and BLM representatives denounced the outsourcing practices as “racist”. There are nearly 800 outsourced workers comprising the cleaning, catering and security services at UCL, the majority of whom come from BME backgrounds.

Praveen Kolluguri, co-founder of ILS, said: “Casualisation isn’t just about jobs. It is a tool for division. It creates a group of hyper-exploited migrant labourers that find themselves stuck in unpleasant jobs, reinforcing the idea that they are somehow worth less than the rest of us.”

Pablo, a spokesperson from BLM UK, also remarked on the racial dimensions of casual work.

He said: “Outsourcing is about imposing a racial order… We’re seeing an apartheid-like transfer of wealth from the lowest-paid, the darkest worker to the whitest and most privileged workers.”

IWGB stated that, ultimately, their principal demand is for UCL to initiate and fund an independent review of its outsourcing practices, including a financial cost-benefit analysis of current contracts.

A UCL spokesperson said: “We have a long-established process for room bookings to ensure that we can support all events to take place in line with our deep commitment to free speech, whilst ensuring the safety and security for all those who attend.

“In this case, the organiser failed to follow this process so the booking was never confirmed on our system. Any suggestion this event was cancelled for any other reason is wholly inaccurate. In addition, the organisers were aware that they could have rescheduled this event at another time, in line with our policy.

“Earlier this year, we worked alongside our providers, Bidvest Noonan, to further enhance the service by making security teams even more visible; redefining roles to have clearer duties, accountabilities and better training; and using new equipment to enable us to deliver a more efficient, tech-enabled security service. 

As part of the consultation process, we strongly encouraged input and counterproposals. Bidvest Noonan engaged with UNISON, our recognised trade union, and reviewed all areas of the proposal with a number of revisions made following these conversations.  As a result, we avoided compulsory redundancies through a number of mitigations including some staff accepting similar roles within Bidvest Noonan outside of UCL, and others taking up an enhanced voluntary resignation offer.  

“The new working pattern has seen a shift away from desk-based roles within buildings, to more mobile and patrolling security staff around campus, which will allow us to cover a wider range of buildings and areas, react more quickly to incidents, no matter where they take place.

“Our outsourced colleagues are highly valued and respected members of the UCL community, fulfilling essential roles on which we all depend.

“We have made a commitment to ensure that security, cleaning and catering staff receive the same or equivalent pay and benefits as directly employed staff.

In recent years, we have invested over £10 million per year to harmonise pay and benefits for our outsourced colleagues, and these include some of the best rates for these roles in the sector. We contribute the same percentage to their pensions as in-house staff. We are an accredited London Living Wage employer and our external providers are required to pay contracted staff at UCL at least the London Living Wage.”

Related articles recommended by this author:

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

UCL student climate change protesters disrupt BP recruitment event

‘Horrific incitement to violence’: Jewish students’ union slams UCL-UCU Palestine stance

Featured image via IWGB.