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Vodafone HQ Cleaners ‘Threatened with Blacklisting’ Over Protests at Outsourcing Giant

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Outsourced Vodafone HQ cleaners face ‘victimisation’ after pushing for higher pay while cleaning next to millionaire boss, Josiah Mortimer reports

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Walter Calbera cleaned at Vodafone HQ throughout the pandemic. He was earning £11 an hour to support his family, including his two children and his mother. But when he caught COVID, unlike colleagues employed directly by Vodafone, he got no company sick pay.

He wasn’t employed by Vodafone but outsourcing giant Mitie, and he soon came to believe it was a two-tier system. 

Vodafone increased its profits by 24% to £5 billion in 2022, while subcontractor Mitie’s profits soared by 187% to £167 million – an increase of more than £100 million when compared to the previous year, according to Statista.

COVID cleaning contracts powered much of the profit boom. In that context, the dozen or so cleaners working for Mitie see it as a reasonable demand to get full sick pay, more staff, and an end to “unfair and discriminatory practices”.  

Calbera and his fellow cleaners at Vodafone’s London HQ – mostly members of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) – launched a campaign for “fair pay and proper sick pay” in 2021. They won the London Living Wage for cleaners at Vodafone buildings nationally, as well as the hiring of some new staff.

But, after a year of organising, they allege that the largely Latin American cleaners have been victimised by managers at outsourcing giant Mitie for speaking out. 

Walter Calbera’s accounts of the working environment are “disturbing”, the union says. He reports being watched constantly after starting to organise with the union and says he feels “harassed” if he takes breaks, while he has also reported not being allowed to sit down or to leave the building while on shift. 

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Retaliation claims

Calbera and the union allege that he was disciplined for refusing to take on extra workloads for free and is suffering emotionally amid claims his supervisor is “retaliating” against him for union activities. 

Speaking with an interpreter to Byline Times, Calbera said Mitie had made no move on the workers’ demand for better sick pay. “They’re also being quite stubborn about our demand for a change of supervisor,” he said. “We put forward a grievance regarding the treatment and provided evidence. They’ve rejected it.” 

He added that one supervisor for Mitie “victimises our members time and time again” and that “it’s very overwhelming at work because [the individual] only treats trade union members in this way”.

One encounter with a Mitie official after leafletting last autumn stuck with Calbera. “The day after we were distributing leaflets, one of their employees said that those of us who were distributing flyers could be blacklisted or in line for future dismissal,” he said.

Mitie has said it has received no evidence of victimisation, though the union disputes this.

He believes there is a stark injustice in what cleaners are paid versus some other employees. “Our group, who work at the headquarters where the president of Vodafone is based, were getting paid £8.93 before the pandemic,” he told Byline Times. They are now on £11.95 – the London Living Wage – but say they are still struggling. 

“We don’t want to wait another three-and-a-half years for a dignified pay rise – the cost of living is going up,” Calbera added.

Ivan Merino, a migrant worker from Ecuador who also cleaned at the HQ throughout the pandemic, has worked for Mitie there for more than five years. He told Byline Times: “Mitie is a multinational company with a multinational client. So they defend [the supervisor] as a kind of proxy for defending the name of Mitie as an employer. And it’s always the same with these managers.

“It’s almost like they’re educated or they’re trained for them all to be on the same team against us and then want general fear and to put pressure on us workers instead of trying to actually resolve the problem.” 

He added: “Our uniforms say ‘One Team’ but that’s only true for the management and the supervisors. They’re one team and we’re another team.” 

Two-Tier System?

Vodafone’s CEO’s base pay will be just over a million pounds in the year to March 2023. TechMonitor reported last March that the disparity between the salary of Vodafone’s CEO and its average worker jumped by a fifth in a year, with CEO Nick Read taking home 88 times the telecoms provider’s average employee in 2021.

It was the largest disparity among the 10 FTSE-listed companies included in the study, and does not take into account lower-paid outsourced staff working on behalf of Vodafone. 

Merino said that cleaning staff were angry at the two-tier system in sick pay.

“We want things to be equal,” he told this newspaper. “We need parity and equality. At the end of the day, what kind of colleagues are receiving full sick pay? What do they do? The ones that get full sick pay or have better conditions than us are, for example, the receptionists who work for Mitie, and the facility staff, such as the postal, the mail staff.” 

Merino believes there is an element of discrimination “around the language barrier” at play – a claim denied by Mitie. “Most of us don’t have the highest level of English or we come from migrant backgrounds,” he said.

Ivan Merino at a protest for pay rises in 2021. Photo: Giorgia Borille/IWGB

For Merino, outsourcing firms “benefit from the fact that we don’t speak English as well: we don’t know our rights, or they think we don’t know our rights… so they can give us worse terms and conditions”.  

A Mitie spokesperson told Byline Times that it takes “any allegations of discrimination and bullying very seriously and always ensures any claims are investigated as a matter of priority”.

“We are yet to receive any evidence of discrimination of colleagues working on this contact, despite several requests for this information as part of the investigation process,” the spokesperson added. “As one of Britain’s leading employers, we know our people are what makes us exceptional and are proud to offer some of the best benefits in our industry. All of our colleagues on this contract are paid at least the London Living Wage.”

The firm recently announced a £10 million winter support package “designed to help the lowest paid colleagues across Mitie with the rising cost of living”.

A Mitie source downplayed the union campaign, saying it had not received any evidence to support the victimisation allegations. However, the union disputes this, having submitted a series of official complaints. 

A Vodafone UK spokesperson said: “We are committed to paying our people fairly and providing a great place to work. This includes ensuring that the Real Living Wage is paid to all our employees and third-party contracted staff. We hope there will be productive dialogue between Mitie and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain on the working arrangements of Mitie employees.”

If you have a political or social story that needs telling, get in touch with Josiah Mortimer confidentially by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com.

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