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Our health is not negotiable, which is why we’ve had to walk

Seven security guards at a prestigious London university explain why — with the support of the UVW union — they have decided to self-isolate instead of clock on

OUR health and the health of the public was being put at risk by our employer, Bidvest Noonan.

As a result, we’ve been left with no choice but to walk off the job. As an outsourcing giant recording huge yearly profits, Noonan’s wealth is built upon the backs of thousands of workers like us — all of whom it exploits, by employing them on the worst terms and conditions legally possible.

Of course, it does this, like all outsourcing companies, on behalf of clients who wish to keep their hands clean and project an image of being a socially conscious employer — all while in reality being just as culpable as Noonan for our atrocious treatment; after all, they are the ones who draw up the contracts.

And in our case, that client is St George’s, University of London (SGUL). A medical college which shares the same building as St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, one of the worst-affected hospitals in the country.

We work at the university as security guards, where we primarily guard the student halls. And for months now we’ve been engaged in a fierce battle with the university to be made direct employees.

Indeed, with our union by our side, United Voices of the World (UVW), we have taken consistent direct and strike action to make that happen.

But to say that the response from management, both at the university and at the hospital, has been callous, would be an understatement.

For every day of strike action that we’ve taken, management has called the police, who on each and every occasion, have unlawfully broken our pickets and threatened us all with arrest in the process.

Of course, each and every time that the police have trampled upon our legal and human right to picket our place of work it hasn’t escaped us — a group of wholly Bame and migrant group of workers — that St George’s would show a very different level of willingness to call the police if it were our primarily white and British academic colleagues who were on strike.

But as harsh as St George’s response has been, we have at least forced it to concede that a dispute is taking place.

Especially, when most recently we protested its postgraduate open evening and we gave prospective students a real insight to the racism that lies at the heart of the university. The response from Noonan, however, has largely been one of indifference.

Yet, when the crisis hit, and the scale of it began to dawn upon both us and the rest of the country, we at least thought Noonan would take steps to protect us and the public, especially as we work in an environment where the risk of us contracting and passing on the virus is so high, but we couldn’t have been more wrong.

Noonan and St George’s failed to provide us with with PPE, adequate information, training or even carry out a risk assessment — or certainly not one they did in conjunction with us or showed us the results of.

On top of this, we were left without protective screens to separate us from the students, despite the fact there were numerous suspected cases within the halls.

And when we requested deliveries be temporarily halted, as we had found one student exhibiting symptoms rifling through delivery bags, we were ignored yet again.

In fact, as far as Noonan was concerned, there wasn’t a crisis. Because we found ourselves on the same shift patterns, doing the same tasks and sticking to the same routines.

Literally nothing had changed, and when we inquired into things like what we should do in the event of a fire, for example, and whether we should go into the room of someone suspected of having coronavirus, we were, yet again, you guessed it, ignored.

Noonan also tried to tell us that we were key workers, despite the fact we’re not, and therefore that we had no choice but to come into work.

And because we don’t get sick pay we were consequently forced into the position of having to choose not only between our health and our home but between our jobs and our lives.

And if there is one thing that we will not do, it is allow Noonan to put our lives at risk or the lives of our families and the public at risk. Every time we came home our wives, or our partners, were stressed.

At the end end of day we believe that commuting to and from work and continuing to work was placing us and others in serious, imminent and unavoidable danger, made all the worse for Noonan’s and St George’s failures to comply with their statutory duty of care towards us.

We used to just fear for our welfare; now we’re having to fear not only for our jobs but for the roof over ours and our children’s heads.

Because, once we put all the bluster and spin aside, it is clear that the government is not doing enough, and has no intention to do what it takes to protect workers or renters like ourselves. Halting evictions for three months, but not freezing rent, is just kicking the can down the road.

And the government is living in fantasy land if it thinks benevolent landlords are going to amicably come to an agreement with us over our arrears rather than try to evict us at the first opportunity they get.

In spite of all this we will not give up hope. Because we remain united and know that our union will fight tooth and nail to ensure that Noonan does not sack us and that we receive the full pay that we deserve while we’re self-isolating — something which in fact, all workers, regardless of whether they’re employed, self-employed, “skilled” or “unskilled,” deserve.

Millions of workers like us are now recognising that we’ve been failed by the government. The crumbs that have been thrown our way having only come about through brute necessity.

It is clear that as this crisis continues to unfold, both big business and government expects us to shut up and put up. But neither we, nor the millions of workers and renters just like us and down the country, will forgive or forget.

Cetin Avsar, Cyril Hawken, Kazi Ullah, Yomi Shittu, Dennis Darboh, Yusef Outtara and Dexter Ncube are security guards and members of the UVW.

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