Earlier this week, on Monday 30 August, cleaners and attendants at the Royal Parks in London held a demonstration at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, closing off two weeks of strike action.
The Royal Parks have been an important source of respite throughout the pandemic; the only accessible outdoor spaces for many Londoners during lockdown. Cleaners and attendants working at the parks have played an essential role in keeping these spaces clean and safe for the public to use.
The government, aware of the importance of clean public spaces during lockdown, revealed earlier this year that the Royal Parks would receive coronavirus funding to the tune of £2.2 million. Throughout the pandemic, Oliver Dowden, the Tory minister for culture, media, and sport, has been full of cynical praise for essential workers in this sector.
Putting two and two together, you might assume that key workers in London’s busiest parks would be treated with the dignity they deserve. From the stories told by the workers themselves, however, it is clear that the complete opposite is the case.
Greater London's fantastic key workers are being offered free tickets to this year's BRIT Awards, which has joined the government's roster of covid pilots.— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) April 22, 2021
Find out how to apply below 👇 https://t.co/UC8GUVYiTS
As with so much of the public sector, the Royal Parks are kept functioning through a mixture of in-house and outsourced labour – the latter increasingly becoming the norm.
Workers outsourced through private contractors suffer worse pay and conditions than those kept in-house, however, and are predominantly drawn from black, Latin American, and Eastern European backgrounds.
Such is the case with Just Ask Estate Services, the company currently holding the contract for outsourced labour at the Royal Parks.
Cleaners and attendants hired through Just Ask are given little-to-no sick pay or annual leave. They have faced threats of redundancy, despite their status as essential workers. And they have not been provided with any PPE, despite the fact that they are cleaning in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
Not only do workers employed through Just Ask face poor conditions, low pay, and redundancies due to the precarious contracts they are on, but they also receive no support if they are injured on the job.
One worker we spoke to was attacked by drunken thugs while cleaning park toilets late at night. This brutal experience left him hospitalised. Giuseppe – who has worked at the Royal Parks for years – continues to attend physiotherapy once a week for the damage inflicted to his knee, with absolutely zero support from his employer.
And Giuseppe’s case is not isolated. There have been multiple instances of violence against workers at the Royal Parks in recent years. But the parks’ private employers have consistently refused to take any responsibility, instead prioritising their profits over the health and safety of staff.
This inhumane treatment has driven the workers to fight back. With the support of two unions, PCS and United Voices of the World (UVW), the cleaners and attendees set out for two weeks of strike action from 16 August, following a rally outside Royal Parks HQ on the 30 July.
Two years ago, the same workforce took action against their old contractor, VINCI, to fight for a pay increase to the London living wage. The strike was fully supported by all the workers. This resulted in a quick victory, with the workers winning their full demands within two days.
This time, however, the new employer, Just Ask, has resorted to replacing strikers with fresh labour – cynically using those who may otherwise be unemployed to break the strike.
This has not had their desired effect of demoralising the workers, however, who say they will continue striking until their demands over pay, jobs, and conditions are met.
Workers across the board are under attack from the bosses. Despite the high-sounding praise from big business politicians about their essential role, key workers are instead facing wage cuts, an erosion of terms and conditions, and job losses.
Tactics like ‘fire and rehire’ are increasingly being used by ruthless bosses to undermine workers’ pay and conditions. Whether it is bus drivers in Manchester, British Gas workers, or the young tech staff at Goodlord, it is clear that the capitalists will happily cast workers onto the fire in their search for ever-greater profits.
This treatment of workers is no accident. As with all industries under capitalism, companies like Just Ask can only turn a profit by exploiting those of us who must sell our ability to work in order to pay our bills.
To stop these attacks, profiteers such as Just Ask must be shown the door. Alongside the demands raised by the workers, therefore, the call must also be for an end to outsourcing, with all services and staff brought in-house.
Workers – in all sectors and industries – must unite as a class to fend off these parasites. As one worker from the Royal Parks demo put it: “As one or two, we can do nothing; as hundreds of thousands, we can do anything.”
Just Ask will be submitting their response to the workers on 9 September. If the demands of the workers are not met, they will return with further strike action.
The labour movement should offer their full solidarity to the Royal Parks workers in their fight for equal treatment, fair pay, and a guarantee against redundancies. You can support the workers by donating to their strike fund.