Exploitation and Inequality: The Plight of UCL’s Outsourced Security Staff

Andrea Bidnic, Mads Brown & Lily Park

In a statement made in November, UCL claimed outsourced security staff were “employed under the same terms and key conditions as in-house staff”. Yet, security workers at the picket line from the 14th to 16th November 2022 told The Cheese Grater a different story. 

UCL introduced outsourcing: the hiring of staff outside a company to perform internal work, in 2000. From this point onwards, the university has failed to adequately regulate labour conditions, allowing its subcontractor, Bidvest Noonan, to profit from exploitation of outsourced workers. 

Outsourced security guards at UCL earn almost half of what directly employed security guards were paid 22 years ago. Not only are the workers underpaid, but they are also owed hundreds of pounds from UCL. For months, their wages have either been deducted or withheld. Though this is certainly unlawful, it is also entirely unethical, especially throughout a cost of living crisis. 

For these reasons, the outsourced workers of UCL are demanding a £15/hour rate, a raise from the current pay rate of £13-14/hour. This is a wage equivalent to that of the directly employed security staff 22 years prior. Yet, it must be understood that this rate is still a considerable cut in wages. An equal pay rate must account for inflation, meaning it should be calculated at £25/hour. In comparison, the workers are asking for the bare minimum from UCL. 

Interviews with members of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain highlighted the extent of exploitative practices UCL is currently engaged in. One striking worker outlined the source of collective outrage for The Cheese Grater: ‘We are fighting against outsourcing. We want UCL to employ us directly […] We’re always underpaid, we always have problems with our pay, our pension is messed up.. UCL promised to give us parity. But these companies that outsource us are not here to help us.’ 

One interview with an IWGB representative highlighted the extent of disparity in pay between outsourced and directly employed workers. When asked about weekend and overtime pay, she stated: ‘If you work directly for UCL, you get double pay, or time and a half for your Saturdays, for example. But for us, even if we work weekends, we don’t get double pay or anything like that so there’s a difference.’ 

This vast inequality is only furthered by nepotism, a practice which runs rife within UCL’s management team. When asked to expand on the nepotistic systems in place at UCL, a striking worker explained to The Cheese Grater that ‘family members are given direct jobs, promotion. So in management, there are family members who are brought in-house and given positions. It’s friends of friends and family who are given interviews, positions and promotions.’ 

Moreover, those employed directly by the university receive raises in pay which reflect the number of years they’ve worked for UCL. An IWGB representative outlined to The Cheese Grater that ‘if you are on a UCL contract, you go by grades, so a grade would depend on how many years you’ve served. Your pay will go up by grades. But for us at the moment, we’re just outsourced. For us, it’s the minimum. UCL security guards when they attend work, they get extra money just for attending, we don’t get any of that.’ 

The same worker who brought the nepotistic practices within UCL to the attention of The Cheese Grater also defined the university as a ‘racist’ institution. In an interview conducted by the IWBG itself, Martiza Castilo Calle, Vice-President of IWGB and former UCL cleaner raised the point that, ‘in reality we can see that the majority of outsourced jobs are done by BAME workers, often migrant workers, and the conditions under these subcontractors are far worse than those enjoyed by direct employees. This is a clear case of institutional racism by a university that purports to be progressive and inclusive, and must end at once.”

With this abundance of unlawful and inequitable practices at UCL, it’s not surprising that the unrest of November 2022 wasn’t the first time security staff at UCL have resorted to strike action. In 2019, rising issues of disparity in sick pay convinced 98.8% of security staff to vote for strikes. At this time, outsourced workers were not paid for the first three days of sick leave and only £94.25 a week thereafter. 

When asked about the extent to which these strikes were successful, a member of security for UCL told The Cheese Grater: ‘In that strike, we achieved parity with the permanent staff over sick pay, pensions, holidays. […] The subcontractors are eroding what we won in 2019. That’s why you see all this anger out here. All these people are furious. They are demanding for them to stop eroding the terms and conditions which the university gave them in 2019 and should be restored immediately!’ 

In spite of these past campaigns and open letters to UCL, externally employed security staff still do not receive the same working entitlements as insourced staff. This constant indifference from UCL prompted the launch of a new push in May 2022, a push which led to the recent three-day strike. 

Evidently, the hard-earned improvements to sick pay made by the 2019 strikes have since been overshadowed by UCL’s current mistreatment of its security staff. Spurred on by the developments made by previous strikes, one worker at the picket line defined the key objective of this third strike: ‘The first two strikes we got a bit of what we wanted but now we’re striking for them to bring us in house.”

According to the IWGB, being brought ‘in house’ would increase working security and facilitate wages negotiations due to the disappearance of a “middleman”, in this case, UCL. This was essential for one IWGB worker whom The Cheese Grater interviewed at the picket line: ‘The profit UCL pays, they should be able to pay us and bring us in house. Being in house would bring us job security and better terms and conditions.’ 

Another worker interviewed at the picket line emphasised just how debilitating outsourcing has become, stating that ‘it has affected us massively. We can’t do our daily tasks because we are limited to certain information. For example, if I wanted to look up something online at UCL, I couldn’t because I’m just a contractor and not directly employed staff for UCL. You get treated differently because we are not directly employed staff: we are just numbers. We get replaced really easily.’ 

UCL has failed hundreds of employees; ‘security alone, we are about 250. We have loads of cleaners, over 500 cleaners, we have caterers, porters. It’s big, big outsourcing’, said one IWGB representative. Due to a lack of access to the university’s resources, including even basic requirements such as wifi, outsourced workers feel undervalued, easily replaceable, and excluded at UCL. 

Not only are UCL’s security staff exploited by Bidvest Noonan, they are also overwhelmed by the current cost of living crisis. In such an unstable economic climate, these workers demand higher wages. One security officer employed indirectly by UCL, via Bidvest Noonan, communicated his utter concern to The Cheese Grater, stating it had become ‘difficult to survive’. 

This is a regrettable state of affairs for UCL. Yet, one solution prevails: bring the outsourced security workers ‘in house’, and kick out the subcontractors. 

Economically, putting a stop to outsourcing is more than attainable for UCL; a university with a surplus of £128.3 million in 2020/21 is hardly impoverished. At the November strikes, outsourced workers held up a physical representation of UCL’s surplus: a cardboard piggy bank. One worker chanted: ‘they have 110 million in the bank right now that they’re not spending on improving working conditions for staff.’ With such financial solvency, it’s impossible to understand why UCL is yet to support demands from its security staff. The university needs to break its ‘piggy bank’ and help underpaid workers. 

An overwhelming number of outsourced workers are massively underpaid, despite working long hours. One striking worker commented how ‘the cleaners work very hard; they come here at 4 in the morning’ and demanded that cleaners, ‘the most underpaid on site’, receive at least £15/hour. Not only are there disparities in pay, but there are also vast differences between grants of annual leave. Whilst UCL staff are provided with over 28 days annual leave, outsourced workers are entitled to far less. 

One staff member stated that due to previous strikes ‘we won 27/28 days holiday plus some 8 days but now Bidvest Noonan is not giving some of the workers annual leave because they are giving them in terms of hours not in terms of days and basically reducing it to about 19 days.’ This is below the minimum legal amount of 28 days, a great disservice on behalf of UCL. 

The same worker also raised the issue of pensions, which are ‘being deducted and not being remitted properly and the deductions are sometimes wrong.’ This statement raised even more concern in light of recent allegations faced by Bidvest Noonan. The company has been practising unlawful pension deduction for over six months, a considerable amount of which occurred off the back of the pandemic. 

Despite repeated strike action, UCL continues to outsource their security staff to Bidvest Noonan. These workers are evidently underpaid and mistreated. Moreover, UCL also refuses to acknowledge the rights of workers to be represented by a trade union of their choice. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) represents the vast majority of outsourced security staff, around 75%. However, UCL deliberately chooses not to recognize it. Instead, they are affiliated with another union: Unison. 

During an interview with The Cheese Grater, a member of the IWGB drew attention to this issue: ‘UCL does not want to talk to our union because we expose them! They have chosen not to speak with us. They have chosen not to negotiate with us. They chose a union which only represents a minority because they [Unison] listens to what they say to them. Because our union represents a majority of the workers, they don’t want to negotiate with us! The union they speak to, they go agree and make decisions on pay raise which doesn’t affect our members. They simply follow what UCL wants.’ It’s apparent that UCL has opted for a union who won’t question any of their unethical practices, and with no-one to hold them accountable, the university will continue to allow their outsourced workers to be exploited.

In January 2022, UCL management began consultations with outsourced staff. However, the university refused to engage the IWGB: a union which represents a majority of outsourced cleaners, porters, and security staff. Not only is this antagonistic to change, but testimonies from workers show that UCL has also been attempting to intimidate outsourced staff to turn them against insourcing. The current circumstances appear to be heading towards a predetermined outcome; an outcome which means outsourcing continues and workers rights fail to improve. For this reason, it’s even more important that UCL management is held accountable for the exploitation of their employees. 

The security staff at UCL are integral to the everyday safety and wellbeing of students. However, the Students’ Union is yet to regard them as such. The first step towards promoting rights for outsourced workers is ensuring that their voices are heard. For that to happen, the Union must recognise that like any other UCL employee, their well-being matters. Yet, despite the recent development of the ‘Cost of Living Hub’, and provisions of financial support or emergency accommodation to students in need of aid, the Union has remained silent on the rights of security workers. 

UCL’s ‘progressive and pioneering spirit’ is beginning to feel like a smokescreen. The only place a university at which the voices of desperate workers are repeatedly silenced will progress is into disrepute. Far from ‘pioneering’, the spirit of UCL, at least in regard to its security workers, is deeply hypocritical and full of injustice.