Activism

Cleaners protest at Downing Street over ‘culture of disrespect’ exposed in Sue Gray report

One cleaner who worked at the Ministry of Justice called for managers to be trained in how to speak to low-paid staff.

Cleaners, security guards and other service industry workers held a protest at Downing Street over the "culture of disrespect" exposed in the Sue Gray report. Image: Eliza Pitkin

Cleaners, security guards and other service industry workers staged a protest outside Downing Street on Friday over the “culture of disrespect” towards Number 10 staff exposed in the Sue Gray report.

A banner reading “They partied while workers died” was held by members of union United Voices of the World (UVW), which represents cleaners and security guards, many of whom are migrants working in offices across London, including the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)

Protesters called for justice for Emanuel Gomes who died after experiencing Covid-19 symptoms in April 2020. He had continued to work as a cleaner at the MoJ after being denied adequate PPE.

Speaking to the crowd through a translator, Gomes’s cousin, Vicente Mendez, said: “We still continue to suffer. Fortunately we’re in the trade union to help us fight back but we are still suffering working in the Ministry of Justice.”

Susana Benavides, a former cleaner at Topshop’s flagship Oxford Street store, added: “We need to be conscious of the fact that there are many Emanuel’s around London, all suffering… (employers) want to discriminate against us but we’re not going to take that anymore.”

Vincente Mendez, cousin of Emanuel Gomes, continues to work at the Ministry of Justice and says working conditions have not improved since his relatives’ death. Image: Evie Breese / The Big Issue

Around 90 protesters heard speeches from union members, cleaners and journalist Owen Jones, who told the crowd: “The people who run the British government have been raised with class hatred and spite for working class people for as long as they’ve known how to walk.”

One cleaner said he worked at the Ministry of Justice in 2020 for £9 an hour.

Speaking to The Big Issue, he said: “Because many of us don’t speak English, they make fun of us and they mess us around. And this is why many people let themselves be exploited and don’t speak out.”

He also called for managers to be trained in how to treat low-paid staff properly.

The Sue Gray report exposed the late night partying in Number 10 that went on during lockdown and left a wall stained with red wine, as well as “multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff”.

Boris Johnson later called the findings “repugnant” and said he had personally apologised to cleaning and security staff involved following the report’s publication. He added that he does not know specifically which of his own civil servants were responsible for “the alleged rudeness”.

A banner at the protest read: “They partied while workers died”. Image: Eliza Pitkin

Petros Elia, general secretary for UVW, said the union was not surprised by the revelations in the Sue Gray report.

A protester at Downing Street. Image: Eliza Pitkin

Speaking to The Big Issue at the protest he said: “We’ve got lots of people down here today including government cleaners, migrant workers who are low paid and UVW members. An invisible army who are rarely visible or recognised, and they’ve come here today to say enough is enough and they want to be treated as equals.

“They get minimum wage which is an abysmal wage in London, which we know is not enough to live on.

“Civil servants get far better sick pay, far higher wages… but all of these workers are part of the government machine and some of them are treated as second class citizens.”

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