Putting the rights of cleaners at the centre of the struggle for transformation of universities: The case of UJ cleaners

by Aug 1, 2014Magazine

The debate on transformation of universities tends to focus on changes in colour and gender, as well as access to these institutions. These are vitally important questions, because they seek to cure
the ills of colonialism and apartheid in university education.

On the other hand, there has not been much pronounced public debate about the role of workers
– especially vulnerable workers such as cleaners – in the struggle for transforming university education. This has to do with the fact that the transformation discourse is dominated by academics that have no working class agenda. Added to that, the weaknesses and fragmentation of workers and their trade unions at universities have undermined workers’ ability to assert their agenda in the transformation discourse.

However, all is not lost as there
are a number of initiatives which seek
to put the position of workers and outsourced workers in particular on the transformation agenda of these ‘ivory towers’ – the universities. Writing about outsourcing of what was regarded as non-essential service at the University of Cape Town(UCT), Jonathan Grossman, a progressive academic and a member of the UCt Workers Support Committee, argues, ‘The bulk of outsourcing at UCT took place from the end of 1998. Since that time, transport services which did not previously exist have been extended to the university through the contracting in of a private transport company.’

Grossman also speaks
to the ideological and
political foundations of outsourcing, saying: ‘As with all outsourcing, the driving managerial imperative was
a quest to cut costs. That imperative was ideologised into the “common sense” of neo-liberalism. The “core business” of the university
was deemed to be “teaching and research”.’ The logic of outsourcing saw other services such as cleaning, printing, transport, and gardening as being peripheral and needing to be privatised in order
to reduce running costs of these institutions. Lucien van der Walt, David Mokoena and Sakhile Shange who were part of the struggle against privatization Lucien van der Walt, David Mokoena and Sakhile Shange who were part of the struggle against privatization and rationalization at Wits University 2001, Norma Reid replaced Colin Bundy as Vice Chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her appointment takes place a year after the retrenchment of
613 support service staff. This amounted to a quarter of Wits’ 2 377 employees. This massive layoff was part of the ongoing, and controversial, Wits 2001 restructuring programme.’

Therefore, outsourcing and the privatisation of services at universities
is against transformation of these institutions as these measures lower labour standards and create a highly unjust system for workers at these institutions. From the perspective
of workers working at universities transformation must lead to an improvement in their working conditions better wages, dignity and full participation in governance of these institutions.

Like cleaners in other universities, cleaners at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) are involved in a protracted struggle with the sole objective to shape the transformation agenda of the institution, and reverse outsourcing of cleaning services and the other so-called non-core services. These workers realised that
the transformation discourse is elitist
and tends to exclude workers, especially cleaners. A number of the so-called transformation seminars have been hosted and these deliberately exclude discussion on the conditions of cleaners and
workers in general. As soon as workers and cleaners in particular introduce
their demands in these fora, they are being ridiculed and projected as being unrealistic and coming up with proposals which are financially unsound. Of course, the University’s top management does not want to even begin to
discuss the fact that their huge
salary packages running into
millions of Rands are unjust
and are responsible for huge
wage gaps at these universities.
In 2012 Loyiso Sidimba of City
Press reported that the highest
paid Vice Chancellor earned
more than R3.4m a year – a
package much higher than
that of a State President. On
the other hand, some of the
cleaners at the University of
Johannesburg earned R1 600
a month in January 2014,
and this is way below even
the stipulated wages of the
Sectoral Determination of the
Cleaning Sector. Cleaners
tend to be undermined and
looked down upon at these
universities. Their working conditions
are atrocious. For example, cleaners
at the Uj stated in a memorandum of demand in February this year: ‘A pregnant woman worker was compelled to work under dangerous working conditions in one of the campus at the University of Johannesburg. This is a health hazard not only for the woman, but also the child.’

After realising that trade unions were unable to advance the transformation agenda at the UJ, cleaners there formed an independent forum called the Persistent Solidarity Forum (PSF) in 2013. The forum includes progressive academics and some students. One of the objectives of the forum is to broaden the transformation agenda at UJ by putting the rights of cleaners – the most vulnerable workers– at the centre of the University’s transformation debate. In other words, a transformed university is one that ensures the rights of workers who clean the offices of academics, top managers and lecture halls, and also that they are respected. It has to be noted that the majority of cleaners are women who are also single parents. Transformation has to be located within a social justice agenda, and this includes ensuring that various constituencies of the universities, namely working-class women in particular, women, workers, students and academics, benefit from the social changes.

The PSF has employed a number
of strategies and tactics to advance
the interests of workers at UJ. As part
of advancing workers’ education, workshops on workers’ rights, the Sectoral Determination for the Cleaning Sector and the Labour Relations Act were organised and facilitated by
the Casual Workers Advice Office (Cwao), the Centre for Education
Rights Transformation (Cert) and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in 2013 and 2014. Using a popular education method which puts an emphasis on workers’ knowledge and experience, cleaners were able to speak freely about their conditions of work and low wages. It became clear from the inputs from the workshop participants that ‘there can be no real transformation of the University without addressing workers’ demands which includes better working conditions, reversal of outsourcing and better wages.’

Besides workshops, the PSF organised two lunch-time demonstrations at Uj
in November 2013 and February 2014. The demonstration in February 2014
was addressed by representatives from Numsa, the Democratic Left Front, and students who were facing repression and suspensions from the University as a result of fighting financial exclusions at that time. UJ cleaners were also part of the Numsa strike on the 19th of March, and were given a platform to address marchers on the day of the strike. There have also been meetings with the UJ management, and these have resulted in some initial negotiations on wages and working conditions.

Workers’ resistance at UJ has also been met with subtle forms of repression. Just after the demonstration held on
the 24th February 2014, more than 10 workers faced disciplinary hearings. On the positive side, workers belonging to the PSF have benefited from the non- formal education and popular education methods because they have gained confidence, and are able to question
the University management and the contractors about access to their rights as workers. In addition, these workers have also made links with other trade unions and civil society structures. For example, the Freedom of Expression Institute has played a pivotal role by ensuring that the PSF is able to use the Gatherings Act to access their right to protests.

Another policy problem is that even government policy on post-schooling, such as the White Paper on Post- Schooling, does not mention issues and demands of university workers and cleaners in particular. Besides talk of ‘skills development’, ‘governance’, and ‘recognition of prior learning’, there is no real policy discussion on how to address the concerns of vulnerable workers at these institutions. The policy blind spot can probably be addressed when workers at universities begin to organise and assert their agenda at universities and in the public domain.

Clearly, the Ministerial Oversight Committee on Transformation in the South African Public Universities is not in a position to view issues of vulnerable workers as part of a transformation agenda because the committee is led by the elite in the academy that benefits
from the status quo characterised by
a very huge wage gap. One of the aims
of the committee is ‘to promote social cohesion and an institutional environment where every student and staff member can live, study, work and flourish free
of any constraints resulting from unfair discrimination.’ This statement does
not explicitly speak to the conditions of workers at these universities. Surely, very low wages earned by cleaners impose
an economic constraint on workers as they end up being heavily indebted to loan sharks in a context of rising food, transport and basic needs prices.

ritten by Mondli Hlatshwayo a researcher in the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg.

Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla Issue #89