UCL v. Security Staff: Echoes of Exploitation Ignored by Student Apathy

Rusheen Bansal

“They’re hiring new people when employees are losing hours.” 

On December 4, spirited chants reverberated across campus as aggrieved black and brown security officers called for an end to UCL’s derogatory outsourcing practices in their latest bout of strike action. Having swapped their shiny blue jackets for crimson vests, the officers raised megaphones, hand-made posters and flagpoles to assert their presence in an institution that has only sought to marginalise it.

Outsourcing, the practice of hiring labour through an external contractor is how the majority of UCL’s auxiliary staff, from security and cleaning to hospitality and food, are employed. A system implemented nearly 20 years ago, outsourcing has made these auxiliary workers, majority of whom come from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment. The latest example of this is the recent “transformation of security services”, a joint effort by UCL and Bidvest Noonan (the primary subcontractor for security).

What’s going on? 

On 7 June 2023, UCL announced its plan to “enhance its security services” to deliver the best campus experience possible. This entailed “making security teams more visible across the Bloomsbury campus; redefining roles to have clearer duties, accountabilities and better training; and using new equipment…to deliver a more efficient, tech-enabled security service”. In other words, security staff have been moved from desk-based shifts inside buildings to patrol-based duties outside, put on hourly rotations at different positions throughout the day, and have been replaced by intercoms installed outside some building entrances. 

Consultations were held between June and July to incorporate the concerns of impacted workers into the new strategy. However, only the recognized union, UNISON, which represents less than 50% of UCL’s 200 security officers, was contacted. The other, unrecognised union, Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), which claims to represent the majority of the security workforce, reports being excluded from the consultation process. A security officer and member of the IWGB The Cheese Grater spoke to told us that the exclusion “wasn’t great…because everytime we would ask them a question or try to challenge a decision, they would say that they’re dealing with the recognised union.” 

When asked about their experience with the consultation, a representative from UNISON shared: “You have to compromise, always, with negotiations. At the end of the day, we wanted our members to come out, at least, with the best deal. And we looked at three main things…the contracted hours, the pay, and the pattern. We fought so hard and those were maintained.” 

An investigation by The Cheese Grater uncovered a different story.

What has changed since the transformation? 

Even though hourly wages have remained unaffected, interviews with remaining security officers revealed that their shift patterns, hours, total incomes, workload and employee benefits have been significantly altered by the transformation. 

Since September 1st 2023, several security officers have been moved to a ‘Four On, Four Off’ shift pattern. This refers to a repetitive rota cycle where an officer works four days in a row, then takes the next four days off. This pattern yields approximately 15-16 days of work per month. Compared to the 20-21 work days they had during their previous fixed 5-day workweeks, officers are now facing significant cuts to their working hours, ranging anywhere from 10-75 hours a month. An officer shared, “I used to work 5 days a week, Sunday to Thursday. They have now split my shift into two, and given it to two people.” 

A senior security guard highlighted the pitfalls of this shift pattern: ‘In the time I’ve spent in the security industry, it is the worst work pattern you can get…It is not consistent. It impacts your personal life: you can’t plan something, you can’t say “on a Tuesday, I will do A,B,C,D” because you will find that you will be at work.’ 

The cut in hours has naturally resulted in a loss of income. Living in a city characterised by an immutable cost-of-living crisis has affected the mental wellbeing of many staff members. One officer shared, “I lost about 72 hours a month, which is about £1350 per month. So there’s a big pay cut on top of the cost-of-living crisis. That’s really messed me up.” 

However, the actual workload has not decreased. An IWGB representative explained: They have more intercoms and cameras, but there’s less security…but it’s the same amount of buildings as before.” Coupled with the number of students on the rise, there are more and more people on campus everyday that require security and assistance. Consequently, the deducted hours are being repurposed as “overtime hours,” offered weekly to security officers for ad-hoc requests. In the absence of takers, Bidvest Noonan is hiring temporary agency workers, paid the statutory minimum hourly rate, through another round of subcontracting to cover vacant shifts.

Not only does this prove that there is just as much work to be done around campus as before the transformation, some officers have also complained of an increase in workload. Indeed, guards have criticised having to train these temporary workers on UCL procedures. An officer observed, “Sometimes you train somebody for the whole day, then you don’t see them for a few months. Then they come back again, so you have to keep training them.” Although the temporary hires undergo security training, they lack familiarity with UCL procedures and campus geography, as such knowledge is predominantly gained through experience. A senior security officer clarified that one needs “three months, at least, to be able to sit at the front desk of any UCL building and direct the people properly”. However, as Dr Matteo Tiratelli, UCL-UCU’s Anti-casualisation Officer, explained: “They don’t know how the buildings work, and there are people who have worked at UCL for 10 or 15 years, who have those skills, who are now being ordered to go out and patrol.” 

In an effort to make security “more visible across campus”, officers have been tasked to patrol outside UCL buildings. Since November, they have been doing this on an hourly rotating basis, switching positions on campus throughout the day. This is because UCL’s analysis found that accidents were more likely to occur outside buildings based on past incidents. However, this is probably because a security officer was already present at the manned desk, preventing accidents in that specific location in the first place. Dr Tiratelli commented: “It’s a kind of perverse logic of justification, where the very people who are preventing incidents from happening are now being told they have to go to where the incidents are”.

Moreover, the greater time spent outside the building in London’s winter is physically demanding and negatively impacts officers’ wellbeing, making them more prone to sickness as well as crime. In fact, numerous interviewees have reported that their colleagues are already falling sick and requesting time off. Additionally, officers standing outside buildings lack protective gear, such as stab-proof vests, reflective tapes or body cameras during their shifts, despite Camden having one of London’s highest street crime rates. They are only provided with cobalt-blue jackets which can render them vulnerable on the streets due to their recognisable hue.

According to a UCL spokesperson, “The new working pattern…will allow [security] to cover a wider range of buildings and areas, and react more quickly to incidents, no matter where they take place.” However, security officers highlighted how the new pattern actually leaves staff, students and property more vulnerable than before. 

For instance, guards have already reported incidents of sensitive lab equipment lying undelivered on reception desks for hours due to lack of manned desks, which can hamper the research of many professors and PhD students if it happens again. Moreover, if a professor or student is being followed, they now face a greater safety concern entering a building as they will be more vulnerable to tailgating due to the absence of desk staff. By the time an officer reaches the site, someone could already have been attacked, or the property damaged or stolen. Additionally, in buildings with intercoms on the door, students needing accessibility assistance may have to wait longer for security support to arrive. Having untrained security officers on site also endangers the health and safety of campus users, as they may not know UCL’s fire and safety procedures or the assembly points in an emergency. 

Ultimately, this increase in workload has not corresponded with an increase in pay — and will not until the management decides so — due to the lack of benefits afforded to outsourced workers at UCL. In November 2019, outsourced workers won “parity”, that is being put on the same pay scales and employee benefits as in-house staff. However, not all benefits of being in-house have been made available to them. A striking example of this inequality is the inability of outsourced workers to negotiate pay rises based on changed job responsibilities with HR, despite being on a UCL pay scale. Other shortcomings include restricted carer’s leave and a lack of discounted further education and childcare, all of which are services provided to direct employees. This highlights only a fraction of the broader disparities faced by outsourced workers at UCL, which has ultimately created a two-tier workforce. 

The latest example of such disparities is the dramatic reduction in sick pay entitlement for guards, from 91 days every 12 months to 78 days across their career, as stated in a recent tweet by UCU. Dr Tiratelli explained: “I, through UCU, raised it with UCL, and they basically said that “this is still parity,” even though it’s clearly not.” When a UNISON representative was asked about this, they said that “that’s not one that we recognise as happening”, and according to their communications with Bidvest Noonan, this change has not been made.

Ultimately, the very process that was aimed to enhance security service and experience has only diminished the quality of security and wellbeing of officers so far. 

Where are the students? 

Even with their booming sound system and rhythmic chants, protestors failed to faze UCL students. Students continued walking, manoeuvring around the gathered groups with their averted eyes and headphones in or chattering away in groups of three. Are they too oblivious to notice, or worse, too detached to care? 

“Without student support, there is no way we’re going to be able to achieve anything”, remarked a concerned security officer. In the past, students have been active participants of such strikes. For instance, they reportedly played a crucial role in the 2019 strikes that led to pay parity, hosting a vocal protest outside the Provost’s Office to demand equality. Yet, there is a growing sense of apathy among UCL students today. Dr Tiratelli explains this phenomenon best: “[Students] see [UCL] like a big corporation…Like, yes, you can boycott Sainsbury’s, but it’s Sainsbury’s, it’s not going to make that much difference”. Indeed, many UK universities, once heralded as intellectual playgrounds for radical political action among the youth, have transformed into gargantuan commercialised factories demanding extortionate prices for a piece of paper that doesn’t guarantee a job.

At UCL, the Students’ Union (SU) has played a crucial role in the depoliticisation of its student body. The SU is yet to take an official stance on the ongoing security staff disputes, or engage with the matter in any way. Both UCU and IWGB representatives have reportedly contacted the SU, only to receive no response. In an interview with The Cheese Grater, Ahmad Ismail, the Diversity and Inclusion Officer, proudly stated that “We are completely driven by what our students put forward”, deflecting responsibility for SU’s inaction onto the students and their perceived lack of engagement with the issue. But whose responsibility is it really to motivate the other party to care? 

Moreover, the transformation in security work structure, especially the hourly rotations, further prevents officers from forming personal relationships with staff and students, which is “the best part of the job”, according to some. It is important to remember that security officers do so much more at UCL than just security. They are the first and last points of contact in most buildings on campus. The illogical and short-sighted transformation is removing these essential members of the university from the buildings we all use every day, ultimately eroding the sense of community on campus by fracturing the relationships where professors and students once knew security guards by name.

Where does this leave us? 

During a Black History Month event organised by IWGB, representatives from Black Lives Matter (BLM) UK and Indian Labour Solidarity (ILS) denounced these practices as “racist”. 

Praveen Kolluguri, co-founder of ILS, said, “Casualisation…creates a group of hyper-exploited migrant labourers who find themselves stuck in unpleasant jobs, reinforcing the idea that they’re somehow worth less than the rest of us.” A prime example of this is the 35 redundancies in July where a hefty severance package was offered to security guards to voluntarily resign. The ones who chose to leave were reportedly some of the most experienced officers at UCL who did not want to work under the new system. 

“Their plan is to slowly push all of us…out. So no one strikes, they break the relationships, and then they can hire people for less money. Because the longer you stay…the more your pay goes up,” remarked a guard who has been working at UCL for 8 years. 

While UCL is not unique in exploiting such conditions, structural to the whole economy, there is no necessity for UCL to engage in this form of exploitation. UCL is one of the UK’s wealthiest universities. It is also one of the only remaining universities in Central London to out-source its auxiliary workers. In 2000, when UCL employed security in-house, officers were paid £13 an hour. In real terms, that would equal to £25 an hour today. Yet in 2023, most of them are paid only £15 an hour on average. UCL has reportedly invested £10 million per year since 2020 to “harmonise pay” for outsourced workers. Why are security officers still paid 60% of what they actually deserve?

Outside the very buildings where its academics preach anti-capitalist and anti-colonial praxis, UCL’s most racialised workforce that secures and cleans them is being exploited through the same mechanisms they critique, while the students of the same disciplines turn a blind eye. This disconcerting reality will define the nature of the university for years to come.

Additional reporting by Malvika Murkumbi, Andreas Bidnic and Isabella Heath