Interview: Clara Osagiede

The cleaner who convinced London's Tory mayor of the justice of her cause

Clara Osagiede bursts into the room flapping a piece of paper, her dark eyes flashing. "We're basically being paid the same as we were 16 years ago!" she says, brandishing the yellowing payslip. "The situation is outrageous."

Two mobile phones continuously interrupt her. This is not surprising, given that she is trying to live two lives. By day, she volunteers for the national transport union RMT, making speeches, attending conferences and giving interviews. From 9pm to 5am, she works as a cleaner for London Underground.

"I work five nights a week but I still have to share a two- bedroom flat with five others and sleep on the floor. We're so scared of the bailiff coming in and taking away what little we have that we can't even open the door."

Despite working the night shift, Clara is paid £6.10 an hour. According to the payslip handed to her by an old colleague, this is barely a 7 per cent increase on what cleaners were paid in 1992, despite the huge rise in the cost of living. It is well below the estimated living wage of £7.45 an hour the mayor's office estimates London workers need to be above the poverty line.

Working on the minimum wage doesn't just mean receiving a low salary. As Clara explains: "I have 24 days' holiday a year. I have no benefits and no pension. There are no sick days - even if you have to take time off because you're assaulted on the job. The deal is: if you don't show, you don't get paid."

As a trade union activist, Clara spends her free time visiting city stations and depots, collecting workers' stories. "Conditions are terrible," she says. "Cleaners are forced to clean up vomit and rubbish without decent protection. When one cleaner refused to work without the proper equipment, she was asked to leave."

Clara, and hundreds of cleaners like her, are beginning to make their concerns public. Last April, 397 out of 400 RMT cleaners voted to take strike action, demanding the living wage and an improvement in conditions. Since then there have been two strikes - one on 26 June for 24 hours and one from 1 July for 48 hours. Since the action began, says Clara, she has hardly slept.

Making an impact

Clara was born and educated in Nigeria. She studied architecture at university and was a prominent student activist. Now, she is using her skills on behalf of the Underground's cleaners and is getting results. Following the second strike, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced that all cleaners employed by Metronet would be paid the living wage.

The "living wage" concept originated in the United States and was introduced here about ten years ago; the idea has been gaining currency in British politics since. In 2004, the campaigning group London Citizens managed to get the London Olympic Committee to commit to paying the living wage to all those working on the 2012 Games. Now, the movement is gaining ground in Scotland, led by a coalition of anti-poverty groups. In Oxford, university students are supporting their college cleaners in the fight for a pay increase above the statutory minimum, which will run at £5.73 an hour from October.

"The biggest obstacle to change is division among the cleaners," said Clara, who explains that a large proportion of the people she works with are women of African origin without indefinite leave to remain in the UK. These groups have much to gain from collective action, but it is perilous. Their immigrant status makes them vulnerable.

"They are worried about victimisation; employers have succeeded in putting the fear factor into them," she says.

In a competitive global labour market, companies can afford to be hard on trade union members. "I've just had this faxed to me," says Clara, waving "another" notice for a disciplinary hearing. "I have to go to one every other day. Because of my activist nature, my bosses don't like me."

Regardless of obstacles, the cleaners will continue to fight for the living wage across the London Transport network. The mayor's proposed pay increases do not cover cleaners working on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly Lines, where the employer is a different company, Tube Lines. The union has unanswered concerns about unhygienic working conditions, third-party sackings and poor employment benefits.

But the campaign is having an impact, which can be seen in Barclays decision to pay the London living wage to its support staff across London, setting a precedent for the private sector.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire