During the pandemic, some were out of work for months. Others were out on the front lines, risking their health to keep things running as smoothly as possible. While healthcare staff faced the challenges of the pandemic in real time, and supermarket staff saved us from empty shelves, an often forgotten segment of the essential workforce was also working away, facing harsh conditions and feeling the brunt of precarity in a crisis: cleaners.
Cleaners and attendants who work at the Royal Parks in London—including Hyde Park, Richmond Park, and St James’ Park, among others—have recently found themselves in the middle of a battle for equality in their two-tier workforce.
Despite serving a vital purpose—especially during the pandemic, when parks became some of the only places you could go outside of your own home—cleaners and attendants for the Royal Parks are outsourced through private contractor Just Ask Services. Unlike their colleagues who are employed directly, this workforce loses out on a number of rights, and they’ve had enough.
Last month, 32 workers voted unanimously to take strike action over a dispute which precedes Just Ask’s takeover of the contracts. Backed by two unions, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and United Voices of the World (UVW), they are fighting primarily for sick pay parity with in-house staff, fairer contracts, and better workplace health and safety. A two-week strike kicked off on 16 August, set to finish on bank holiday Monday.
Unsafe Working Conditions
Lisa*, a Royal Parks cleaner taking part in the strike action, enjoys her job as a cleaner, partly because of the ‘lovely’ people she interacts with day-to-day. But she admits it can be dangerous.
‘It’s not easy,’ says Lisa. ‘You don’t know what kind of day you’re going to have, what sort of people are going to pass through and what state they’ll leave the toilets in. As a cleaner, you’re prepared to take on the tasks on a day-to-day basis. But since the pandemic, the fear has worsened: you’re in contact with thousands of people every day, you’re cleaning up after people, you’re dealing with drunk and aggressive people, and possibly people with the virus itself.’
She continues: ‘You never know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if somebody’s going to pull out a knife on you, for example. We made a few suggestions like putting cameras outside each quarter, or getting more patrols out, especially at closing time. They had security during the pandemic, so why can’t [they] get somebody at the door at closing time now?’
Lisa tells Tribune that a number of staff have been attacked while working in the parks. One man, she alleges, was left hospitalised and out of work for two months. Despite this, the Royal Parks reportedly offered nothing by way of a ‘get well soon’, and often, she says, choose to believe members of the public over cleaning staff in such situations: ‘We’re undervalued,’ she says.
A Lack of Care
Covid safety measures have also reportedly been lacking. ‘It’s clear the Royal Parks don’t care about us cleaners, especially in the face of the pandemic,’ Lisa says. She tells Tribune that a hut where she and her colleagues sit, at the entrance of the Diana’s Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens, was not made Covid-secure, despite complaints.
‘I asked Royal Parks and the manager of that playground to put up a plastic screen in the hut to protect us from the virus and any direct contact from the public,’ she explains. ‘One response from a Royal Parks manager was that it was an old police hut, and she didn’t want to ruin the look of it in any way. That, for me, says it all.’
All of this is underscored by unsatisfactory sick pay. While those employed directly by the Royal Parks are entitled to sick pay in their contracts, outsourced workers like Lisa are left to pay their way with Statutory Sick Pay: a meagre £96.35 per week.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 31 percent of key workers have children aged between five and 15 years, while 16 percent have children aged four or under. Fifteen percent were at moderate risk from the coronavirus because of a health condition.
Some Royal Parks cleaners who fell ill with coronavirus in the last 18 months were allegedly told to take holiday pay to manage their finances while off from work. ‘It was very scary when this pandemic started, and it still is,’ Lisa says. ‘I feared that I was going to get the virus at some point, and the worst fear was for my family – that I would pass it on to them. The other worry was that if I contracted the virus, I would have had to go off sick. Without sick pay, how am I to pay my bills, or my rent, or buy food?’
Royal Parks workers have been discussing the issue of sick pay since before the pandemic, another worker, Susie*, says, but the outbreak forced them to take it more seriously. ‘Who thought that coronavirus was coming and that it would be an issue for people?’ Susie asks. ‘We have no idea what could happen tomorrow, so I think people need to be secured. People need to be rest assured that if something happens, they will be okay.’
The Fight for Equality
A lack of adequate sick pay policies for one rung of the two-tier workforce highlights a serious lack of equality within the organisation – and sick pay isn’t the only issue.
According to Lisa and Susie, when Just Ask took over their contracts, many people lost their usual hours and accompanying holiday pay. Lisa, who was working regular forty-hour weeks, says she was suddenly told that, because her contract was only for 24 hours, she would only receive holiday pay for those hours. She found out after she’d used her holidays up.
As well, staff newly hired by Just Ask were reportedly put on forty-hour contracts, adding to the notion that long-time cleaning staff are undervalued. ‘Equality is very important,’ says Susie. ‘If somebody else starts work and they get more hours or money, or a better contract than me, I don’t think that’s fair.’
For UVW, the issue is inherently intertwined with larger questions of inequality. ‘The British institution which owns the Royal Parks has come under national and international scrutiny when it comes to the legacy of structural racism, both past and present,’ the union said. ‘It is an irony not lost on the Royal Parks workers, many black African, brown, and migrant people who are fighting threatened job cuts and demanding an end to the precarious contracts with outsourced private companies.’
The union previously filed a landmark legal challenge accusing Royal Parks of racial discrimination after pointing out that the ninety-percent white in-house staff receive significantly superior working conditions and benefits than their majority non-white outsourced counterparts.
Lisa suggests that bringing on cleaners and attendants as direct employees of the Royal Parks—one of their six demands—would be a step towards closing that gap between the cleaners and office workers, which so often represents a very real class divide.
A Glimmer of Hope
Despite the challenges, the strikers taking part in this month’s action seem full of hope. ‘So far the company has said they will try their best, but we want results,’ Susie says. ‘I think that we’ve worked hard and we deserve to actually win this.’
‘I don’t think [the company] thought we were going to go through with it,’ Lisa adds. ‘And now I think they’re running a little bit scared.’
As the strike action comes to a close, Susie calls on the general public to join the Royal Parks workers’ fight: ‘If you’ve ever enjoyed coming out to the parks, you should come out and support us, send an email asking the Royal Parks to listen to us, anything – myself and my colleagues would appreciate that.’
In a statement to Tribune, a spokesperson for the Royal Parks said: ‘In line with many other organisations, we contract out cleaning services, and many other services integral to maintaining the parks, and the terms and conditions of staff employed by those contractors are decided by their employers. All cleaning staff have been paid London Living Wage since 2019.
‘We acknowledge and understand the issues raised but cannot comment further due to legal reasons. We will continue to work closely with our partners, suppliers, and contractors to ensure that terms and conditions for all those who work as part of the wider Parks’ teams are fair and appropriate.’
A spokesperson for Just Ask Services said: ‘When Just Ask took on this contract in May 2021, we inherited a long-running dispute about employment terms. Since then, we have been working with our colleagues to better understand their concerns, and we remain fully committed to working with our team, their union representatives and The Royal Parks to resolve the situation as quickly and amicably as possible.’