Three primary school cleaners in the West Yorkshire village of Kinsley are entering the sixth week of a strike over claims their wages and conditions have been cut since a private company took over the contract.
Like thousands of school support staff around the country, Lesley Leake, Marice Hall and Karen McGee found that when their school was turned into an academy last year the cleaning was outsourced to a private firm.
The women, who between them have more than 28 years’ experience cleaning Kinsley primary school in the former coalmining village, said that once the contract switched from Wakefield council to C&D Cleaning in April, they had their wages cut from £7.85 an hour to £7.20, the minimum wage.
Leake, who has two adult children and a second job, said their pensions, sick pay and holiday entitlement had also been hit.
“The first month when we got our payslips we just thought it could be a few teething problems but the second month it was the same, and it just went on and on.”
The women said that as they struggled to make ends meet they tried to raise the issues with C&D Cleaning but were “fobbed off”.
“They didn’t want to know. Sometimes they would just put the phone down as we were talking,” said Leake. “It was pretty devastating because we’d always been happy and we all depended on the money to make ends meet, pay the mortgage and bills.”
In the end the three, who all come from former mining families, got in touch with their union, Unison, but regional officer Robin Symonds said C&D Cleaning, based in nearby Barnsley, was reluctant to discuss the women’s cases.
In one email seen by the Guardian, the company’s head of human resources, Nick Thorpe, replied to Unison: “We do not recognise you or your organisation and subsequently we will not be entering into any form of dialogue with you in relation to our employees.”
In another, he added: “I understand … the impact for you as an organisation when members realise that we are no longer living in the 1980s and they question the actual value of union membership when you have no say, power or influence over their employer.”
The three women, believing they had no other option, decided to go on strike, staging their first picket outside the school at the beginning of September.
“It was as bit scary at first because none of us have ever done anything like this but we didn’t know what else we could do,” said Leake, who lives with her husband, a former miner turned caretaker, in Kinsley. “It wasn’t just the money we were losing, it was the stress that was affecting us and our families as well.
“I would go home crying because it just felt we were being treated so unfairly and I didn’t know how I was going to pay the mortgage or the bills.”
Experts say that tens of billions of pounds’ worth of contracts are outsourced each year and trade unions warn that too often this process results in worse wages and conditions for the workers involved.
Last week workers who provide mental health support for vulnerable people in nearby Bradford went on strike over what they said were unfair imposed changes to their working hours. And last month the Guardian reported on the case of teaching assistants in Durham who were fighting dramatic changes to their contracts.
Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, said that for years public services “had been on sale to the lowest bidder”.
“When a service gets taken over by a private company, employees often lose out in the race to the bottom, ending up on lower pay, zero-hours contracts and working longer days.”
Unison is taking the three women’s case to an employment tribunal, claiming the company may have broken rules meant to ensure workers’ terms and conditions are maintained when contracts change hands.
C&D Cleaning refused to comment on the case when contacted by the Guardian, referring queries to Crooks Commercial Solicitors in Wakefield. Nick Wilson from Crooks said the firm would not be commenting on the case while an employment tribunal was under way.
Helen Grantham, the assistant chief executive of Wakefield council, said it was “committed to protecting staff and ensuring they have fair working conditions”, adding: “We are in discussions with those involved to try and resolve the issues.”
Known locally and on social media as the Kinsley Cleaners, the women have been supported by their local MP, Jon Trickett, who has been in touch with the company and the school in an effort to find a solution.
“These women are devoted to the school and the children there. They are showing real courage and principles to do this because it is not easy but they felt they had no option,” said Trickett. He said their working lives had been turned upside down through no fault of their own.
“This is part of a much bigger problem of people living in precarious jobs with employers who don’t seem to have high regard for the staff that work for them and I think it is completely unacceptable.”
The three say they have been overwhelmed with support from the local community, which was at the heart of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. But as they enter the sixth week of their strike McGee said all they want is their old lives and jobs back.
“I have never been on strike and I did not want to go on strike. This is all new to all of us, but we had no choice and now we are 100% determined to see it through.”