Students and trade union fight to prevent university from outsourcing sanitation work

14 May 2020

Educational institutions around the world have over the last two decades, increasingly used outsourced cleaning, catering and security services as a means of cutting costs. Until recently, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) was the only university in Hong Kong that still only used directly-employed sanitation workers.

On 16 April however, the Chinese University Employee General Union (CUEGU) and students from the school’s grassroots concern group published a report revealing that the previous year, the school had bypassed accepted procedures and outsourced a portion of the campus toilet cleaning work to six non-staff members. In all, four cleaners, a driver and a supervisor had been hired and the university was preparing to extend the arrangement this year.

The report showed that while the outsourced workers had a higher basic salary than directly-employed staff, their hourly rate was actually lower because they worked longer hours, six days a week as opposed to five. Moreover, they were denied medical insurance coverage and other benefits offered to university staff members.

The university had cut the working hours of directly-employed staff during the Covid-19 outbreak in order to minimise the chances of infection. However, the six workers hired from outside contractors were required to work longer hours in order to make sure that all necessary cleaning work was done.

Photograph from Hong Kong Independent Media

The Chinese University of Hong Kong first floated the idea of outsourcing sanitation work in 2003, when the economic downturn placed a greater strain on university finances. However, after fierce resistance from workers and students on campus, CUHK management made a promise not to outsource its sanitation workforce.

Later, as the campus expanded and older sanitation workers retired, management claimed it had difficulties in hiring new staff. In 2012, school officials tried once again to outsource the library’s sanitation services. This was met with another round of opposition from the union, students and teachers.

Following the latest incident, the union and student representatives demanded an end to outsourcing and, by 27 April, they had gathered more than 1,000 signatures from students and staff. However, school management appears determined this time to maintain the outsourcing arrangement in the coming year.

The directly-employed sanitation workers at CUHK are now increasingly worried that management will try to push through more outsourcing in the future. The CUEGU is determined to prevent this and is hopeful that increased awareness of the problem among students will lead to greater solidarity among students, workers and teachers on campus and that will put pressure on management to rescind its decision.

Workers and students at several universities in the United Kingdom and the United States have already won important battles to bring cleaning, catering and security services back in-house. The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London School of Economics and King’s College in London all managed to restore sanitation workers as directly employed staff after a decade-long struggle with school management.

Tim Pringle, a senior lecturer at SOAS, who supported the Justice for Workers campaign at the school noted, “One important thing that the SOAS experience gives us is prioritising workers. Students need to be involved in the struggle, but not substituting themselves as workers. Or else this would be a weakness which the school will continuously exploit.”

In addition, Tim Pringle, who is a University and College Union (UCU) representative, noted that the CUHK workers, students and union organizers will need international as well as local support if they are to ensure the university remains true to its promise of only using directly employed sanitation workers.

Outsourcing is a global phenomenon used by employers to lower costs and reduce their responsibilities to the workforce. It is also a union-busting tool that can isolate vulnerable workers as well as discipline others – a kind of ‘if you don’t toe the line, you’re next’ message to unionised workers. It requires a global response from trade unions. My union supported the cleaners’ long struggle at our university for in-house employment and we stand in solidarity with cleaning workers in universities fighting the same battles anywhere in the world.

CLB hopes moreover that the struggle of the unions and students in Hong Kong to fight against outsourcing will find resonance in universities in mainland China where student groups have often supported sanitation workers in their campaigns for higher pay.

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