Race discrimination case | Ethnic minority staff at historic London parks launch legal fight over pay gaps

Ethnic minority staff at historic London parks launch legal fight over pay gaps

Cleaners at some of London’s historic parks are embarking on a landmark legal case, alleging their lower-paid work contracts amount to racial discrimination.

First reported by The Guardian, outsourced cleaning staff at the capital’s Royal Parks - a charity that manages some of London’s most famous green spaces such as Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, were being paid less minimum wage up until 2019, when they staged a strike.

However, the in-house workforce at Royal Parks were paid at least the London living wage, according to reports. 

At that time, the London living wage was £10.75 an hour, compared to the minimum wage of £8.72.

Figures show that, in 2019, there were approximately 50 people working as outsourced toilet maintenance and cleaners for the Royal Parks -  around 90% of whom were black or ethnic minority. At the same time, an estimated 87% of Royal Parks’ 160 direct employees were white.

It is argued, therefore, that Royal Parks committed indirect racial discrimination by paying the outsourced foreign workers less for the five years from 2014 - when the contract was created by the Royal Parks Agency - the entity responsible for the parks' upkeep before the Royal Parks charity was formed.

The legal case has been mulling around the tribunal system for several years now, having first been submitted in 2021 by the United Voices of the World (UVW), a union representing mostly migrant workers. Its latest submission is the third attempt to push the case ahead, The Guardian said. 

One anonymous employee, one of those paid the minimum wage while working at Kensington Gardens, told the newspaper:  “Most of the [Royal Parks staff] are white and then those of us who are brown and black, most of us are the people who do the most dirty jobs, difficult jobs, but then we are being employed by outsourced organisations.”

They went on: “We’re living in London where the rate is very high … It’s very difficult to live with that little money that we had. We all have family members to think about, to put food on the table for.”

Petros Elia, the UVW general secretary, said: “Outsourcing by its very nature is almost guaranteed to ensure that millions and millions of workers continue to toil on the absolute legally worst terms and conditions that an employer can provide.

“It’s absolutely inevitable that that will be the case for as long as outsourcing continues.”

The UVW legal case of its kind to cite equality legislation to challenge staff outsourcing. It emerged victorious in a 2021 employment tribunal, but the decision was later overturned after Royal Parks argued that the employment judge had not considered other outsourced workers when reaching a decision.

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In August 2023, the UVW won the right to appeal the decision.

Elia said at the time: ”This is a highly political case that could ring the death knell of outsourcing as we know it and redistribute billions of pounds to low paid workers across the country! We can expect a battle all the way to the Supreme Court (the final court of appeal in the UK) no matter who wins this third round, and we in UVW are ready for it, because if we win, everybody wins. A small union of migrants and low-paid,precarious workers could have changed our world for good.”

In a statement following the original decision, Royal Parks had welcomed the court’s decision that the charity “did not indirectly discriminate against the contractor’s employees”. 

The statement read: “We take all matters of equality, diversity and inclusion very seriously.

“We ensure that all qualifying workers employed by our contractors to work in the parks are paid the London living wage and we are immensely grateful to all the cleaning staff who work so hard to keep the parks looking their best.”

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