A group of students at King’s College London have occupied the James Clerk Maxwell Building in solidarity with teachers and cleaning staff. They are demanding that King’s meet the demands of UCU and bring the cleaners back in house.
‘Gender can fuck right off’ is what the cardboard on the door to the bathroom used by us, occupiers on the 5th floor of the James Clerk Maxwell Building, says. There might be urinals and beneath the cardboard there might be a sign with a caricature of a male person, but who cares? Of the nine of us who occupied the 5th floor last Wednesday six identify as women, one as non-binary, and two as men. However, amongst us it has not seemed to be important; all of us have been working and pushing equally hard, all of us support the striking lecturers, all of us oppose the marketization of higher education and lack of democratic practices in the management of the university, and all of us wants better rights for cleaners, most of whom are women from minority backgrounds.
At the moment cleaners at KCL are victims of severe discrimination and victimization on university’s campuses which includes suspensions and threats from Servest because of the cleaners speaking up about the poor conditions under which they are working. This is a big problem! At yesterday’s meeting between the university’s management, academic and cleaning staff, and students, management kept portraying Servest as a decent and good provider of cleaning services, yet, as cleaners’ statements have shown, that is clearly false. As long as management can just put all responsibility on cleaning companies the perspectives for the cleaning staff at most of KCL’s campuses look grim. KCL needs to bring cleaners in house, a process which both LSE and SOAS have committed to, it is without a doubt feasible! As long as the cleaners are treated in this way, Ed Byrne’s words about King’s being ‘in service of society’1 cannot be taken seriously. Furthermore, statements like this in relation to the management’s position on the issue of bringing the cleaners in house indicate that it is more than reasonable to ask who, in management’s opinion, is part of society and who is not?
Management have had a choice, and in virtue of a clear majority of cleaning staff being women and migrants from minority backgrounds management’s choice of treating cleaners in this way seems to signal that women and migrants of colour are not really worth respect and dignity to the same degree as white men, that they are not to the same extent members of the society which KCL is supposed to serve. A university which pays its white, male vice chancellor around £458,000 a year, where cleaners do not receive any sick pay for the first 3 days of illness, where the academic and non-academic female staff earn respectively 16,8% and 12,8% less than their male colleagues, cannot possibly claim to be an international institution committed to increasing diversity and serving society. Society must be understood as encapsulating all of us no matter our race, gender, nationality, socioeconomic class, or health.
This lack of actual commitment to representation and diversity all of us feel is also evident on the teaching level. Most of our lecturers are white and male, and the very same thing applies to the authors of the readings on our curricula. This issue is one which we have had the opportunity to raise more times during our week in occupation. Both the Vice-Dean of Education in the faculty of Arts and Humanities and the Executive Dean of the faculty of Social Science and Public Policy have been around to talk to us, both white and male. On both occasion we have taken the opportunity to show them our mini version of the Maughan Library, one that contains books by people like Salman Rushdie, Shami Chakrabarthi, Lorna Finlayson, Sara Ahmed, and Audre Lorde. We have asked questions like, ‘why have all of my lecturers been white middle-aged men?’, ‘why is it that we in a 10 weeks long module get to spend 6 weeks on ‘Rawls’ Theory of Justice’ and two weeks on ‘race’ and ‘gender’?’. What we want to see is not grand yet empty words about diversity and inclusion, we want to see actual change!
However, it is not as if we have not had contact with any women apart from ourselves in the last couple of days. As many of you have probably seen, we have spoken to Evelyn Welch and Nicola Phillips on more than one occasion. Yet, these two women, as the live stream from Monday’s meeting shows, together with Professor Funmi Olonisakin, still make up a minority in the university’s senior management. So, it seems like everywhere around us, on the 5th floor of JCMB, women are outnumbered, not least amongst the security staff that have been guarding our exits 24/7 since we arrived.
So, even though amongst the occupiers there is no hierarchy and ‘gender [etc.] can fuck right off’, all around us at King’s; on the 5th floor of JCMB, amongst KCL cleaning and security staff, amongst our lecturers and in our curricula, our gender clearly still has a lot of influence on where we end up in society; be it as Vice Chancellor, one out of three cleaners in the Virginia Woolf Building, security guard, or as someone whose work is part of university curricula.
1 Page 2, President & Principal’s Introduction, King’s Strategic Vision 2029