Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stop treating cleaners like dirt!

IT was on every newspaper's front-page and main item on TV news - the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Whether or not he can live up to half the hopes placed in him - and closing Guantanamo prison camp will be a good start - it is a historic moment.

As commentators reminded us, he is entering the White House whereas half a century ago his father would have been barred from lunch counters and bus station rest rooms in many parts of America.

I do wish they did not sound so smug and satisfied, mind. Fifty years is a long time for the world's greatest power, with all its modern technology and world-wide media dominance, to shake off the enduring legacy of the slave era. Millions of black Americans are still held down in poverty, Many white Americans remain racist. And all the gains that paved the way for Obama's presidency were made in struggle.

One of the heroines of the civil rights struggle was a seamstress called Rose Parks. On December 1, 1955, coming home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, she sat down on a bus, and refused an order from the driver to give up her seat for a white passenger. As she said, she was tired. In fact, as she said later, she was tired of racism. Rose Parks was a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People(NAACP), and though her defiance was not the first, it did lead to the Montgomery bus boycott, a major opening battle in the fight against segregation.

It is not only in America that people have to fight for their dignity and decent treatment as human beings, of course, and it is not only blatant Jim Crow laws that oppress and discriminate.

I was reminded of Rose Parks when I heard about Mary Boakye, who is also facing trouble for sitting down, not on a bus in the Deep South, but on a tube train here in London. No, Mary is not the victim of racism, as such, just of the social division which ensures that the army of low-paid workers who keep one of the world's richest cities running are treated like dirt.

Mary is a cleaner, employed by a big global company called ISS to clean the train carriages. No easy job. The way some Metroland travellers sprawl out with their feet up, and food out, you'd think they'd booked bed and breakfast. Not forgetting the free newspapers and scattered junk that accumulates.

Where Mary worked cleaners who have finished a train have to wait till the train doors are opened so they can go. While Mary was waiting she sat down, broom still in hand, her head back and her eyes closed. Cleaners are told not to sit on the seats they have cleaned. Still, you might think Mary's supervisors could turn a blind eye to this rule infraction, especially as there was no complaint about her work. Instead someone took a photograph, and Mary has been accused of sleeping on the job, and sacked. Maybe management has nothing better to do at night. It can't be anything to do with Mary having been a unon rep. The company says it isn't.

The RMT union waged industrial action last year in its campaign for cleaners to get a living wage and decent conditions. The union held a demonstration last week at ISS offices in Greenwich, in defence of two of its members, Mary and tube cleaners' group secretary Clara Osagiede, who faced gross misconduct charge despite being on recognised union duties when she was accused of failing to return to her workplace.

It is demanding that Mary Boakye is reinstated, and has called a special meeting tomorrow night , Friday 23 January, 6pm, at the Exmouth Arms pub, Starcross Road, Euston. The union's genral secretary Bob Crow is billed to speak, along with Pat O’Brien, Steve Hedley, Glenroy Watson, Olly New and others.

I think jobs like cleaning should be taken back in house, and companies like ISS which also has contracts in hospitals, should be sent packing. It is time the workers who do the really essential jobs in this metropolis enjoyed decent pay and dignity, and were treated with the respect due human beings. That's more important than the colour of the man in the White House.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home