Cleaning for Mr Hammond

20 Oct

Cleaner Katy Rojas from Ecuador worked until very recently for Interserve, which has the Foreign & Commonwealth Office cleaning contract. She began in 2010 on £6 per hour but this year had her first rise, to £7.05. Now she’s laid off, having “failed a redundancy matrix”. Interserve says she was unable to use cleaning machines. Katy says she was never asked.

In July she was one of fourteen signatories, mostly Hispanic, to a letter to FCO boss Philip Hammond. More courteous than anything I could have written without a gun to my temple, it nevertheless contained testimonials on low pay. This from Testimony Two:

We are professionals, but we are not treated this way. I take my responsibilities very seriously, I often work extra hours without pay to make sure that all the work has been done to a high standard … We are good, hard working people. I work hard to support my family but the pay just isn’t enough.

On September 4, Katy and her mates had a letter from Simon Thornton, Interserve’s UK Operations Manager. It invited them to:

… an investigatory meeting on 09th September at 11:30 hours … because we are in the process of investigating the following allegations that have been made relating to your conduct in the workplace: Bringing the contract into disrepute …

Lest any cynic seek to link this with the redundancies a month later (or ask how a letter to Philip Hammond came into Simon Thornton’s possession) we have Interserve’s solemn word that:

… [we are] committed to paying employees a fair wage and our personnel will benefit from the new national living wage when it comes in effect next year … we are reducing the number of cleaning staff on the account and have been in a process of consultation with employees and unions over the proposed changes. This is now drawing to a close and a number of people will be affected by redundancy.

Phew, that’s alright then: no connection at all! But allow me a few general remarks:

  • Outsourcing is one of the ways public services and assets are privatised in the name of value for money but, as with student loan sell-offs, the claim seldom bears scrutiny.
  • Where a cheaper service does follow outsourcing it is usually achieved – contrary to the trumpeting of free market ideologues on the superior efficiency of private interest – by cutting standards, wages or both.
  • It has never been easier – though not easy enough for some, as indicated by proposed TU legislation described by one senior Tory as worthy of General Franco – for firms to rid themselves of ‘trouble causers’. (Ask workers at Sheffield Hallam University – kids to feed and mortgages to pay – as they face a third or fourth ‘restructuring’  in as many years.)
  • Speaking as a veteran scrapper myself with Sheffield Hallam Uni (an employer with a record of callous stupidity vis a vis its own cleaners) I must pen a post on HR-Speak. Their peculiar lingo of matchings and mappings, redundancy matrices and displacements bears an uncanny resemblance to MilitarySpeak of collateral damage and surgical strikes. Such euphemisms, together with lies – about valuing people – that aren’t regarded as such because they can’t easily be nailed, drip off the pens of mission statement writers with effortless vacuity.

I don’t consider it the worst sign of our times – nor do I suppose it will be uppermost in the mind of Katy Rojas as she wonders how to make ends meet this month – but I do wonder at the way language is stripped of meaning by target-focused HR zealots in an Age of Spin.

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