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19 March 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 4:47am

Inside London’s twilight world of foreign cleaners

All of the people who come to the surgery for advice are living below the breadline and have had their rights breached by cleaning companies that take advantage of their poor English and low status.

By Anoosh Chakelian

St George’s Cathedral, a boxy, neo-Gothic Catholic church just off Lambeth Road in south-east London, hosts a weekly legal surgery specifically for cleaners of Latin American and Spanish origin.

Perhaps appropriately, as I wander down the nave one wet Thursday morning, the only sound I hear is of a cleaner with a vacuum cleaner meandering up and down the pews. In a corridor attached to the back of the building, 20 or so people are waiting – men and women of different ages, chatting away in Spanish. Priests working in the quarters upstairs often complain about the noise.

The surgery is run by Maria Gonzalez-Merello, an employment barrister who first worked as a cleaner when she came to London from Spain in 1994. The airy room in which she sees her clients – free of charge – contains nothing but a long table and a kettle. Gonzalez-Merello remains composed, moving from one case to the next in quick succession. Though sympathetic towards her clients, nodding wide-eyed as they tell her their stories, she approaches each case with the focus of a lawyer doing a deal – an attitude compounded by her smart, rather corporate dress sense: dark shirt, pencil skirt, pearl earrings.

Each client has a similar story. At some point anywhere between six months and 15 years ago, they travelled to London from Spain. Many Spaniards working as cleaners in their home country hope to find greater employment opportunities. Likewise, South Americans who migrated to Spain for work but found it wanting have had to use the country they saw as a safe destination, because they understood the language, as a stepping stone to London.

Many arrive illegally, using false papers sold as a matter of course in certain parts of Latin America – “That’s their culture, their baggage,” Gonzalez-Merello says when one client casually presents a fake passport – and bring their children and partners along.

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One example is Jaquelín, a middle-aged mother-of-four who arrived in Britain 14 years ago and has been working as Gonzalez-Merello’s administrative assistant for the past three. After Jaquelín was ripped off by a cowboy solicitor who took £7,000 from her and disappeared, Gonzalez-Merello helped her find a suitable immigration lawyer to guide her through the Home Office system.“I am very, very happy now,” she smiles.

All of the people who come to the surgery for advice are living below the breadline and have had their rights breached by cleaning companies that take advantage of their poor English and low status. These companies, often subcontracted by far more prosperous firms, look for excuses to lay off staff or change their hours in the name of financial “efficiency”.

“They’re crooks,” Gonzalez-Merello says, in a matter-of-fact way. “They stop paying people, sack them or dock their wages. When you try to contact them they give you false email addresses. They’re very rude on the phone. They’re crooks.”

Each client is greeted with a cheery “hola” when they arrive. Though stuttering and sheepish in English, they open up when speaking Spanish. “A lot of the employers are racist,” Gonzalez-Merello says. “They say, ‘We are in England, they should speak English, it’s not my problem.’ Sometimes they hear my accent and think, ‘Oh God, another Johnny Foreigner,’ and dismiss me.”

Luz, a middle-aged Colombian woman who comes in after an all-night shift, was dismissed after being accused of sleeping on the job. She was suffering from muscular pain at the time and took a short break (her contract did not offer sick pay). “We wish you all the best for the future,” chirrups the letter terminating her contract.

Fernando, from Spain, has been forced to pay his company £100, though he was given only three hours’ work a day, for accidentally disposing of some shirts left in a rubbish bag beside an office bin. He was suspended at a disciplinary hearing, the minutes of which reveal a darkly ridiculous interrogation: “Did you not think the bag felt strange because of the weight? Shirts are not heavy?”

“It’s like they’re invisible,” Gonzalez-Merello says between advising clients. “It’s impossible for them. It has become increasingly bad over the past nine years and the government has a lot to answer for – they don’t regulate this at all. These people come to Britain for a better life, but is it worth it? It’s modern slavery, that’s what I see. Human rights were once protected – now it’s chaos.”

And yet Gonzalez-Merello has had some success. At the end of last year, 35 contract cleaners working at the Soho offices of the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, ironically known for its PR expertise, had not been paid for seven weeks.

The cleaners, some of whom had started walking to work because they could no longer afford the bus fare, won their missing wages back thanks to the work of Gonzalez-Merello and her fellow barrister John Samson. A victory, yes, but also a sad example of the grubby story you find lurking time and again inside some of Britain’s wealthiest workplaces. 

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