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‘They’ve treated us appallingly,’ HMRC cleaners striking over pay

HMRC cleaners on strike

When George Osborne announced a new “national living wage” (NLW) to boost low-paid workers’ income and help people off welfare, cleaner Maria Hill looked forward to the modest rise the extra 50p per hour would bring her. Hill, 54, has cleaned the Liverpool offices of HM Revenue and Customs for more than 15 years.

“Things are tight, really tight to be honest,” she says. When you are earning £201.60 a week “every bit helps”. It never occurred to her that she would be left much worse off and would end up on strike.

As the April deadline for bringing in the NLW approached, ISS, the company that employs the HMRC cleaners in a complex subcontracting chain, told staff that it could not afford the mandatory rise. It informed them that it intended to claw back any increase in hourly pay by cutting each worker’s number of hours so that their overall wages stayed the same.

Hill, on 30 hours a week, was due a £15 rise when the new rate of £7.20 per hour came in, but ISS cut her hours to 28 a week, clawing back £14.40. Other workers had their hours adjusted similarly. In some cases where cleaners were only doing a few hours a week, they say, the company docked 15 minutes a week from their rotas to avoid having to pay more.

For Hill and several other cleaners – nearly all women in their 50s born and bred in Liverpool – there was an additional sting in the tail. Single people on low pay who work at least 30 hours a week qualify for the government’s working tax credits to supplement their wages. Ironically, these credits are paid out by HMRC, which is also the government department responsible for enforcing the NLW.

When ISS lopped two hours from their working week, the cleaners fell below the threshold and have, as a result, lost between £40 and £50 a week in tax credit payments each. Several of the women have visited Citizens Advice bureaux (CAB) or the council’s One Stop Shop for advice in recent weeks and have been told they would be better off not working and receiving full benefits.

Hill says that by the time she has paid for her bus pass to work, her gas, electricity, water and rent, “there’s nothing spare”. She has fallen behind with her council tax since the changes. “It’s really upsetting, You work all week and what’s the point of it, it’s just hand-to-mouth, beans on toast, nothing left to go anywhere or take the grandchildren out.”

The picket in Liverpool

The picket in Liverpool

Patricia Walls, 53, is in the same position as Hill. Her 30-hour week has been cut to 28 hours and she has lost her in-work tax credits. She worked throughout the years when her four children were growing up, enjoying the friendship and dignity a job gave her. She, too, now fears she may be better off not working, although she says she would hate to be unemployed. “I’ve worked all my life, I don’t want to give up,” she told the Guardian outside the HMRC offices in James Street.

Those of the cleaners who are members of the Public and Commercial Services union voted to strike for two days this week against the changes and gathered around a bench outside the building to form a picket line. Beneath the steady flow of cheerful Liverpool banter and raucous clapping of ISS managers crossing the picket line, there was a sense of bewilderment and fear for the future.

Walls was referred to CAB by her GP because the stress was already taking its toll – she ended up in hospital with high blood pressure and an infection. Having lost her tax credits, she would probably receive more money getting welfare and housing support, but since she still lives in the housing association three-bedroomed house her children grew up in, leaving the job she has done for 27 years would also mean leaving the family home, thanks to government’s so-called “bedroom tax” for under-occupancy. “It’s really stressing me out,” she says.

Hill says. “They’ve treated us appallingly, we’re just a number, they don’t care about us,” she says. “The managers are not local.”

ISS is, in fact, a transnational corporation, one of the largest employers in the world, with its headquarters in Denmark. It specialises in facilities management and doubled its profits last year to £250m, although none of the female cleaners we spoke to at the HMRC offices knew they were working for a foreign company.

The origins of the arrangement for HMRC buildings date back to 2001, when the department sold off its estate of more than 600 buildings to Mapeley, a Bermuda-based offshore company, as part of a private finance initiative. The deal was later condemned by MPs as bad value and as undermining HMRC’s position as a tax collector.

HMRC leases back buildings from a subsidiary of Mapele; a further subsidiary, Salisbury FM, is contracted by Mapeley to manage the day-to-day running of the offices. Salisbury, in turn, subcontracts the cleaning to ISS.

HMRC said that while it “greatly appreciated the work cleaning staff do”, their terms and conditions were determined by the external contractor and that it had no involvement in their pay. “HMRC is absolutely committed to every worker receiving at least the national living wage and we come down hard on suppliers, including our own, who don’t share that commitment. All those who work for our third party suppliers can be assured of our determination to secure for all workers their legal entitlement to a living wage.”

ISS declined to discuss whether its contract to clean HMRC offices allowed for increases in pay mandated by government. “Our contract with Salisbury is commercially sensitive and details are not made public. We do, however, have the necessary checks in place with our client to ensure the cleaning provision targets are maintained,” it said in a statement.

After the two-day strike, it said: “ISS has a duty of care towards our staff, as well as a contractual responsibility to the client. As such, we look forward to resuming discussions with our people, and to do so with their PCS trade union representatives and the other key parties involved.”

A spokesperson for Salisbury FM declined to comment on questions about provisions in its contract with ISS for an increase in costs as a result of the NLW, saying that workers’ terms were a private matter between them and ISS, and that Salisbury’s contract with ISS was also private and confidential. Mapeley did not respond to requests for comment.

Hills’s MP, Maria Eagle, said it was “beyond parody” that the government could not make sure people who cleaned its own offices benefited from the NLW, “a policy supposed to tackle low pay. It makes their policy look more like a propaganda tool than wanting to do something. These convoluted arrangements to distance employees from their employer are one of the ways working people have had money drained away from them in the last 20 years. This sleight of hand is the kind of things that makes people disillusioned with politics.”


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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field