Demanding pay justice for train cleaners, photo Ted Woodley
Demanding pay justice for train cleaners, photo Ted Woodley

Atalian Servest

Ted Woodley, RMT Coventry No 1 branch (personal capacity)

Passengers on expensive Avanti West Coast trains will be shocked to learn that while the train manager is entitled to free train travel, a final salary pension and sick pay, the cleaner working on the same train, at the same time, gets nothing.

These cleaners have worked throughout the pandemic and, like all key workers, were applauded for their efforts by the great and the good. Yet when these same workers ask for an improvement in their lot, apparently they just aren’t worth it!

They are employed by outsourcing firm Atalian Servest which makes big profits by driving workers’ pay and conditions down to the lowest possible rate, and spiriting away as much as it can to its shareholders in France.

These workers earn just £9.68 an hour. The RMT union has revealed that this company’s shareholders pocketed over £10 million last year – enough to increase hourly pay to £15 several times over. Yet the company is absolutely determined to keep our members on poverty pay.

RMT members took two days of strike action for the second time from 24-25 February at depots and stations across the Avanti West Coast network.

We demand our cleaners are paid at least £15 an hour. But Atalian Servest’s most recent offer has included an additional pathetic 6p in order to reach the so-called ‘living’ wage of £9.90.

One member on the picket line at Oxley depot told me that she would have been less insulted if they had been offered nothing at all, as 6p an hour shows what management really think we’re worth!

As well as low pay, our train cleaner members are faced with appalling working conditions. I was shown a video by a picket of mice running across the Oxley staff canteen. Another described mushrooms growing out of the floor and leaking windows in the same area. RMT is currently challenging the employer to urgently address these unsanitary facilities.

We learned that, as well as being a poverty-paying employer, Atalian Servest is a callous one as well. It recently reduced bereavement leave from three days to one, and one staff member was even asked to come into work in the middle of his paternity leave, days after the premature birth of his child.

Pickets outside Birmingham New Street station told me that, while the directly employed train crew are given time off and support immediately after railway fatalities, the cleaners get nothing.

So far, four days of strike action has been called in pursuance of the RMT’s pay claim. It is clear we are dealing with an exceptionally hard-nosed employer, that sees its staff as nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Therefore, we should be discussing escalating the dispute and coordinating future strike action with our train cleaner members at other companies such as Churchill’s who are also fighting for improved pay.

RMT cleaner members on both Oxley and New Street picket lines enthusiastically supported the idea of holding a protest outside Avanti HQ to draw wider public attention to their disgusting employment practices and force them to intervene to address our members’ grievances.


Mike Sargent

Five in the morning outside Dover Priory Station on 23 February and it’s dark and cold. Very cold! Members of the local RMT union assembled to support the strike against Churchill, which operates many cleaning contracts on the railways across south east England. This is a scene that was repeated at 40 stations across London and the south east.

The ballot for strike action returned a huge mandate, and quite rightly! These workers have put up with low pay and disrespect from employers whose only intent is to squeeze as much from the workforce as possible.

No sick pay, having to pay to travel on the trains they clean, and incomprehensible payslips that often underpay them. I was shown an electronic pay slip that showed a wage of over £11,000 with £500 deductions that left £1,200!

Empowered by their action, hundreds travelled from over the south to attend an upbeat rally at Westminster. Accompanied by music and dancing, the crowd of hundreds of cleaners were supported by solidarity from other workers and unions, before heading off to the rail company headquarters to make their feelings known – banners, placards, whistles and flags to the fore!

These parasite employers (Churchill paid out millions last year in bonuses and shareholder payments) have to learn that the low-pay model won’t work any longer, that workers must be respected and retained through decent employment practices, or they will move on to other employment.

With the soaring rates of inflation and energy costs, those workers on minimum wage will need in excess of £1,200 a year increase simply to keep pace!

That evening, the pickets were back in place, largely uncontested, and the workers involved took strength from an outstanding day of solidarity and unity.

This was day one of concerted action and is unlikely to be the last. £15 an hour? Not much really for those who were hailed pandemic heroes!

The Socialist Party says:

  • £15 an hour now!
  • Take back all outsourced jobs and bring these workers onto proper railway terms and conditions
  • Renationalise the whole railway system under democratic workers’ control and management – no compensation for the spivs and speculators!