There Was Strength in Numbers

Ana Tejero photographed at her work place / MARÍA DOLORES LÓPEZ MUÑOZ

After five days of partial halts, the outsourced cleaning personnel of the University of Seville achieved an agreement that improved their working conditions.

“Let’s go upstairs and I’ll tell you all about it. It is too cold today to stay out here,” says Ana Tejero, while buttoning up the black cardigan she is wearing over her uniform and crossing her arms to keep warm. This year, summer in Seville lasted longer than expected, and when autumn suddenly struck, it caught the locals underdressed.

The “out here” Ana is referring to is the huge tile-checkered patio of the Center of Cultural Initiatives of the University of Seville (CICUS, by the Spanish acronym) where she is part of the workforce of Ferroser, the company hired by the University of Seville to manage the cleaning service. A week ago, she and her coworkers started a series of halts to protest their working conditions, which have worsened over the last years.


“More hiring and less restraint” or “Ferroser pay the wage raise now” were some of the slogans that hundreds of workers used to demonstrate at the different campus of the University of  Seville. From October 17 to 21, Ferroser workers abandoned their workplace to hit the street and defend their rights. “From the beginning, the company did not want to negotiate, but when the University mediated, there was a change. The client can stand it for one day, but after the fifth day of halts, they change their minds,” Ana explains.

In Spain, 30 percent of the businesses have outsourced at least once part of the services they use with a subcontractor, according to the data of the book The Outsourcing Challenge, published by the European Trade Union Syndicate (ETUI). This percentage is over the European average, which is a 28 percent and is a source of concern for syndicates, as service externalization usually deteriorates working conditions. Work fragmentation allows for salary differentiation, since different companies have different collective agreements, staff reduction and the hindering of union action, as professional relationships become individualized.

It is because of these factors that the cleaning personnel of the University of Seville decided to support the halts, explains Juan Antonio Martín, president of the committee representing Ferroser workers. “We spent the last year and a half negotiating with the company, but we did not see any improvement in the working conditions. We wanted to try all of the options before reaching this point, but there was no solution. There has been a wage freeze since 2012 and no social improvement.”

Juan Antonio Martín and Gertru López, president and secretary of the Committee that represents the workers of Ferroser / MARÍA DOLORES LÓPEZ MUÑOZ
Juan Antonio Martín and Gertru López, president and secretary of the Committee that represents the workers of Ferroser

And, according to a statement emitted by the workers the day the halts started, the part of Ferroser’s workforce that provides services to the University of Seville has been reduced to 89 workers since 2008, in spite of having five more buildings in which to work.

Francisca Carrero, Paqui, is another of the workers that supported the partial strike to demand improvement in their working conditions. This 56-year-old woman, with her blonde upswept hair and her intensely-blue, made-up eyes, describes categorically the worsening in their working conditions. “There is an excessive workload, too many work leaves that are not covered, no salary raise of any kind, and no improvement at all for many years,” she vigorously asserts, accompanying her words with the movement of her hands. “Also, no new personnel has been incorporated and all these factors are making us dissatisfied in general,” she adds.


This dissatisfaction is especially reflected in the case of women. Cleaning services are carried out principally by women, who usually take care of household chores and caregiving also. According to a report developed by the Fundación de Estudios de Economía Aplicada (Foundation of Applied Economy Studies) or Fedea, entitled Brechas de género en el mercado laboral español (Gender Gaps in the Spanish Labor Market), women spend 2.5 more hours doing household chores, including caring for both children and other dependent family members. This implies that everyday they spend 1.4 hours less than men doing paid work and one hour less of leisure.

“When a woman starts working she knows what’s what. The company gives you a job but does not want to know anything about your family life; it only gives you what is required by the law. And those of us who work outside the home are aware of the extra workload we have,” explains Gertru López, secretary of the committee that represents Ferroser’s workers.

“I clock in at half past seven and clock out at half past two. There is no school that opens at seven in the morning. How do I get my children to school?”, asks Ana, who has a school-age boy and girl. Her husband cannot take them to school as he works the night shift, so they have to pay a neighbour so that she takes them to school.

Ana explains that her problem would be solved if the company approved the transfer request to a facility that is closer to her home, something she has asked for many times. “In this company there is no work-life balance. Theoretically, there is a list containing all transfer requests we make, but I haven’t had any further notice of that list. I don’t even know if it exists,” she stresses.

The list Ana mentioned is taken into consideration when there is a vacancy, according to Juan Antonio, but that rarely happens, and in general terms, there is no schedule that adjusts to the workers’ needs. “The thing about work-life balance in companies in which most of the workers are women is that the problem is not just a single person’s; there are many women requesting transfers. Who gets it?”, Paqui asks herself. She also believes this circumstance happens in every company, not just in Ferroser. “When you actually get a schedule that fits your needs, your children already have the house keys in one hand and the cell phone in the other,” she says, laughing.

Workers of Ferroser demonstrate during their concentration at the administration building of the University of Seville, last October / GERTRU LÓPEZ
Workers of Ferroser demonstrate during their concentration at the administration building of the University of Seville, last October / GERTRU LÓPEZ


These partial halts, 3.5 hours in the morning and afternoon shifts, resulted in a new round of negotiation between the cleaning personnel and Ferroser, which led to the workers’ acceptance of an agreement developed in assemblies that includes a salary raise and the improvement of working conditions.

“For me, the most important experience is the one I had the first day of demonstrations, when I looked behind me and saw the group of colleagues, all together,” recalled Juan Antonio, who believes that in order for this to be possible, the committee that represents the workforce must be honest in their work. “It gives me the chills just remembering it.”

María Isabel Valverde, another one of the workers who supported the halts, remembers that many of the workers in the morning shift went to back up the demonstrators of the afternoon shift. “There has been a lot of support among co-workers,” she asserts. Gertru, who declares her satisfaction with the results of the halts, insists on the same idea. “In these days, we have seen that between us there was a comradeship that we thought didn’t exist. Uniting was the key to it all. We feel immensely proud”.

These days have also allowed many of the workers to get to know each other in the protests, since working in different buildings leads to individualization of the tasks. “I did not know my co-workers, and this has helped us to realize that we are a close circle, that people stuck together and that there was a real impulse to work together,” narrates Ana, who is the only worker at the CICUS building.

Paqui, who is described by her colleagues as a woman who is “battling out all day,” shares this belief. “Daily, you hear people saying that, given the circumstances, how is one to fight for better working conditions,” explains Paqui, aware of Spain’s severe financial crisis and high unemployment rate, higher than 28 percent in Andalusia. “But, it is clear that we have to claim what is ours. This is the fight of the workers. We have to keep fighting so that everyone that follows is not left in the lurch. The business owners should not always have the upper hand. Of course not,” she repeats, while shaking her head and receiving the applause of some of her co-workers. María Isabel, who also shakes her head, stresses her words: “of course not.”

That is the reason why the committee believes that they must continue putting pressure on the company to get improvements. “This has to go further. We come to work; of course, we have our responsibilities, but we also have our rights, and they must be defended,” says Gertru. “We don’t have any other choice,” she concludes.