The cleaners and porters at Sotheby’s – one of the largest and oldest auction houses in the world – have won the London Living Wage of £9.15 per hour.

The workers are represented by the trade union United Voices of the World (UVW), a completely volunteer-run, grassroots union established by, and entirely comprised of low-paid migrant workers.

The decision to pay the LLW was confirmed by Sotheby’s spokeswoman on Monday 5th January 2015, following a petition on 38 Degrees, and a pledge to take direct and industrial action. This increase equates to around an extra £120 per month for many of the workers at Sotheby’s.

Before joining UVW the cleaning contractor at Sotheby’s – Contract Cleaning & Maintenance (London) Limited (CCM) – forced through a pay cut, giving the workers an ultimatum to either accept it or risk dismissal.

This victory provides further evidence that wages do not reflect budgetary constraints, but rather the balance of power between workers and their employer.

The workers at Sotheby’s have also demanded they be paid proper sick pay. They currently only receive statutory sick pay (SSP) of £87.55 per week, like millions of other workers around the country. This means that when they are sick – which is often the case due to the physically demanding nature of the job, and their exposure to strong chemicals – they are faced with an almost Dickensian choice between: i) working sick and getting sicker or; ii) not working, falling behind on their rent and facing eviction.

UVW is also currently campaigning for the the LLW for its trade union members at Topshop’s flagship store in Oxford Street who are only paid the minimum wage of £6.50 per hour despite the Arcadia Group, the parent group of Topshop, recording profits of £481m.

Employers are currently exploting the living wage guidelines which allow them to delay implementaion of the living wage by 6 months whilst remaing an accredited living wage employer. Consequently, since securing the LLW the workers at Sotheby’s have insisted that their pay be backdated to the 1st November 2014 when the current LLW came into effect. Likewise, UVW will campaign for their members at Burberry and the Barbican Centre to have the LLW backdated too.

UVW regularly and successfully reclaims £1,000s worth of their members wages that contemptible employers unlawfully deduct. They also have a 100% track record in settling or winning unfair dismissal cases in Employment Tribunals despite hugely employer friendly employment laws in the UK. UVW is also suing ISS, the biggest cleaning contractor in the country, for having dismissed one of the only black cleaners, a mother of three young children, at Burberry for having taken a discarded packet of popcorn out the bin. Yes, you read that correctly: a woman was dismissed for having taken a discarded packet of popcorn out of the bin. This is indicative of the contempt that cleaning companies hold their cleaners in.

UVW have informed Sotheby’s that if their demands are rejected then they will ballot their members for industrial action and stage regular, noisy and disruptive protests.

For a union such as UVW, with no paid officials and minimal resources, to be securing these types of victories should serve as a source of inspiration for the wider trade union movement.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Petros Elia

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