Home > General Politics > I support the SOAS occupations

I support the SOAS occupations

According to different blogs, on Friday 12th June a number of ISS cleaning staff attached to SOAS were summoned to an impromptu meeting by their bosses. At the meeting, immigration officers appeared (Clare reports that they were hiding, awaiting the arrival of all the cleaners) and nine members of staff were detained by immigration officials. ISS is the private company to which cleaning has been outsourced by the School of African and Oriental Studies. It pays its workers in the region of about £6.00 per hour (as this job advert shows).

Since that incident on Friday, events seem to have moved with shocking speed. Rumour abounds that no less than five members of staff have already been deported. Students from SOAS and other London universities have occupied buildings on the SOAS campus in protest at the treatment of staff. All of this is set in the context of a fight for unionisation and better conditions; ISS only recently recognised the right of UNISON to negotiate for terms and conditions, after a campaign that involved both the NUS and UCU.

Today, Tuesday 16th, an injunction was filed, ordering students to vacate the buildings they occupied. Following this, the students involved used the internet (and presumably other means of communication) to invite a rally in support of their occupation. University authorities revoked their threat to send in bailiffs and as of approximately 6.30pm, negotiations have resumed with the students in occupation. How things turn out in the end is still up for grabs, though if you are near London, get down there and help out if you can!

The only reason I am writing about this, since there are any number of excellent blogs from the people involved (even beyond those I’ve linked to), is because I’m quite irritated by the number of lazy reactions I’ve witnessed on Facebook and Twitter to the student occupation. Ranging from “misdirected” to the usual anti-student prejudice, I think quite a few people need a good shake to awaken them from the stuporous indolence in which they languish, amidst their ivory towers. Yes, Brian, this means you.

Consider the situation. This private company has colluded with the state to have some of its own workers arrested. The only crime that these workers committed was to seek whatever work they could to sustain themselves. Against the forces of the state, mere students have no weapon that they can use. By occupying the SOAS buildings, however, they are making clear their opposition to this new tactic by a company to undermine efforts to unionise its workforce. We should be clear that this is what is involved, by the way.

Through fear of the immigration authorities, companies can exploit a near-endless supply of immigrants and the cheap labour they represent. The students are doing the only thing they can: bringing pressure to bear against the university, and in turn against the company, for its devious tactic. A subsequent outcry may very well convince the government to permit the immigrants to stay, as has happened on previous occasions where sufficient agitation has been built up beforehand.

More criminal than occupation, in this situation, is the amount that these cleaners at SOAS are paid – and in this, UNISON, the UCU and the NUS are to be applauded for their efforts. Such pitiful wages call to mind the words of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy: What is freedom? – ye can tell / that which slavery is, too well – for its very name has grown / to an echo of your own. ‘Tis to work and have such pay / as just keeps life from day to day / In your limbs as in a cell / for the tyrants’ use to dwell.

The people at the forefront of the unionisation efforts are now following through on their convictions by basically doing the only thing they can to stop the deportation of colleagues; occupying a SOAS building. I for one am proud to know some of them, and to have supported their endeavours now and in the past. What they’re doing may not be enough, but it displays the correct political orientation. It asks for support from workers first, rather than relying solely upon a legalistic approach, the outcome of which is almost certain to be negative.

In this case, as in the case of occupations over links between universities and arms-dealers, the occupation is a concrete step to put pressure where pressure might do some good; against university bureaucracies. By appealing to workers for support, through solidarity rallies, the students and workers involved are stretching out their hands to others who are victims of exactly the same sort of exploitation. Depending on how negotiations proceed, there may later be a case to extend occupations and call for additional students from other universities to occupy SOAS.

What I think is most heartening however is the strong link evident between students and workers, and the preparedness of both to ask for support from the public at large. It shocks me that some people are prepared to be so crass as to attack these students for it from a position of such material prosperity, bearing in mind that if the occupation is lost, the university may well wish to pursue sanctions against its students, or the private company against the remaining members of its staff. If that should happen, then it is one less group of allies for any of us to ask support from when (not if!) we get into the same sort of fights with our employers, over poor pay and increasingly bad terms and conditions.

Categories: General Politics
  1. June 17, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Excellent post David, and great use of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy.

    Indeed workers and students must work together collectively as what ISS did, along with the role SOAS management played, cannot get away with this. It is also highlights what companies are willing to do to quell collective organisation and unionisation in the name of profit and ‘loyalty’ to their shareholders. Only too happy though to exploit migrant workers, but resort to the racist immigration laws when workers fight for their rights. The message is simple: Keep your mouth shut or else.

    We have a duty to show solidarity to the people in occupation and the SOAS 9.

  2. June 17, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Absolutely. The other thing we need to keep on top of are those people who are claiming that actually ISS suffer in the long run because they (may) be fined for employing illegal immigrants. The truth, of course, is that the threat of such a fine is illusory since ISS will probably not have enquired too closely into the status of its employees. If it does have to pay a fine, it’ll still be less than what it may have to fork out should our friends at SOAS and elsewhere succeed in their unionisation campaigns.

    Frankly I’m outrightly disgusted by the people posting on blogs demanding that these workers be deported. Why should they be deported, I would like to know? Because some arbitrary law says so? They had leave to remain, and the speed with which they were removed – not to mention the rumours that they were not given legal representation or union representation – implies that what the rest of us take for granted as ‘due process’ was not followed. Naturally, this will be because ‘due process’ for immigrants is different than for the rest of us.


    The key point, of course, is that such people demand that these workers get deported and then have the nerve to wonder why ‘the white working class’ is getting screwed over by their bosses! I only wish I could show more solidarity than a mere article on my blog.

  3. June 18, 2009 at 1:43 am

    God knows, if the bosses could deport us for trying to get decent pay, they’d do it!

    Great post Dave.

  4. June 18, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Dave, just to say there’s a rally tomorrow from 6pm at SOAS called by Unison.

    And indeed Charlie, I imagine employers would dearly love to!

  5. June 18, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Bit slow picking up threads here as Dave’s site got filtered by my employer, and I had to make representations to get it unfiltered.

    Yup, good post and actions of students etc to be commended.

    I wonder to myself in passing what percentage of the speakers at the recent Convention on Modern Liberty (http://www.modernliberty.net/programme/speakers) have deigned to speak out on this issue, or to ‘write’ the letter promoted by Harpy on her site (or make any other representations).

    It may be that being arrested when you arrive for work through the connivance of your employer, taken straight to a holding cell and then deported without being able to collect your things or see your friends/family again doesn’t doesn’t really count as a modern liberty issue, though.

  6. June 18, 2009 at 11:23 am

    I noticed this nasty little piece of churnalism in the Guardian; the sting is in the tail-end quote from the border police.


  1. June 17, 2009 at 4:50 am

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