Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Student Occupation at SOAS

Yesterday, around 200 people gathered outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury, London, to protest, and listen to speeches, about the detention and threatened deportation of nine migrant workers, members of the SOAS cleaning staff, last Friday, the 12th of June. After having successfully unionised themselves, securing important victories in their fight for better wages and working conditions, the cleaners were called to an emergency staff meeting early on Friday morning by contractor, ISS, whereupon they were effectively ambushed by forty immigration officers in riot gear. It is known that this action by immigration officials was requested by the outsourced contractor, ISS, with at least some complicity from SOAS officials. All this week, students have been occupying the rooms of the SOAS directorate to "underscore the seriousness of the matter at hand."

The message on Facebook, advertising yesterday's protest, called for people to come bearing mops and brooms, and many attendees wore jay cloths as arm or head bands in solidarity with the deported cleaners. One oft-repeated theme of the speeches (from representatives of the students' union and the NUT, plus the poet Michael Rosen, and someone speaking on behalf of the cleaners themselves) was the notion that we are all immigrants. Whether we came to this country two months ago, or two hundred years ago is as good as irrelevant - the reasons remain much the same. In a world in which capital can move freely around the world, it is necessary for labour to have the same freedom in order to protect itself from the globalisation of labour markets. There is, in this, something of Alain Badiou's notion of affirming the existence of just one world, as discussed in a recent interview with Nina Power: "Philosophically we have to affirm like a law the idea that there is only one world and politically we have to organise the struggle against persecution in complete equality with them. It’s not only to be in favour of their struggle, because it’s also my struggle." 

After hearing speeches, the rally marched round several universities in the area, chanting slogans such as, "If you don't stop the deportation, we wont stop the occupation." Protestors ended up outside the office of SOAS director and principal, Professor Paul Webley, the ostensible Pontius Pilate of the tale, calling for him to show himself and excuse his own acquiescence. Central here is the contradiction, noted by Alberto Toscano, between the professed ethical stance of the college, its commitment to the academic study of human rights and the intersection between geography, economics and politics, and its apparent indifference in practice towards the plight of its own staff. 

This afternoon, SOAS students announced an important victory, securing from the college the promise to write to the Home Office applying for exceptional leave to remain in Britain for those cleaning staff still being detained or in hiding, and to review the practice of out-sourcing cleaning labour to contractors like ISS. If you would like to support the SOAS cleaners, a form letter, to be sent to Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, requesting the cleaners leave to remain in Britain, can be found here.