For those of us who study embassies, consulates and foreign ministries it is easy to forget that they could not work well, if at all, without ‘support staff’. Messengers and security staff have not gone unnoticed; in the last case, for example, in Eugenio Cusumano and Christopher Kinsey (eds.), Diplomatic Security: A Comparative Analysis (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2019). But what of cleaners, porters, drivers, events managers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and members of kindred trades?  And, lest their role and circumstances be thought by scholars to be unworthy of attention, let it not be forgotten that in some countries these people have routinely been recruited by security services to spy on their embassy employers, while foreign ministries with badly treated and disaffected support staff might too readily be opening a door to penetration by hostile intelligence services.

In the nineteenth century and probably well into the twentieth, the attitude of the Foreign Office in London to its support staff was generally ‘benign’, albeit because of a paternalism which in turn was ‘probably due to the aristocratic ethos of its senior staff and a tendency to regard the domestic servants in much the same way as they might have been regarded in a large country house i.e. as distant parts of an extended family’ (Keith Hamilton, the former FCO Historian, to the writer; Keith is currently completing a fascinating and richly detailed book called Servants of Diplomacy: A domestic history of the Victorian Foreign Office). However, at the time of writing (September 2019), it is evident that this particular foreign ministry’s attitude is no longer as benign as it was and has not been so for some time. For on 25 September the fifth short strike of FCO support staff since May came to an end without any sign of resolution. How has this come about?

The root of the serious deterioration in relations between the FCO and its support staff is to be found in the financial crisis of 2008. At this point the FCO sub-contracted responsibility for them to the large, private sector outsourcing company, Interserve, probably under pressure from the Treasury to cut costs. What their pay levels were at that time I do not know but those of the cleaners were evidently far from generous and certainly well below the London Living Wage (LLW), an hourly pay rate calculated by the pressure group Citizens UK that was higher than the national minimum wage because the cost of living in London is significantly higher than elsewhere in the country. In a league table of hourly pay rates for cleaners paid by Whitehall departments published in 2014, those received by FCO cleaners were close to the bottom, amounting to little more than the national minimum wage. Increasingly disgruntled, in June 2012 the cleaners had already taken their plea for the London Living Wage to the foreign secretary, William Hague (whose officials at least lent them an ear), in July 2014 repeated it to his successor Philip Hammond, and returned to the charge once more in the following year – only to be fobbed off each time with the explanation that they were Interserve’s employees, not those of the FCO. By this time, the evidently overwrought FCO official to whose desk the cleaners’ plea kept being diverted lost his temper with them, as revealed in an insensitive and crudely drafted email dashed off to Interserve on 5 August 2015 and released following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from the shadow foreign secretary, the Labour Party’s Hilary Benn. Excepting the first sentence, this is worth quoting in full:

I am really disappointed that your cleaning staff are again writing direct to the FS office over the LLW debate. This must stop they are your employees not ours, if they have issues they should take them up with you not the FCO FS.

I thought they had all signed confidentiality agreements to prevent this occurring, so I assume they will be spoken too [sic] and disciplined where appropriate. My team have enough to deal with without this issue keep re-occurring [sic] and having to draft responses etc.

Please can you again explain to the cleaners they do not work for the FCO (they work at the FCO only) so any future management escalation need [sic] to go through the right channels THIS IS NOT THE FCO!! [emphasis and capitals in original]

Regards. Please let me know what actions are being taken in this matter.

It is true that, while the (properly) anonymous official had laid out the FCO line, he had gone over the top; and the issue was in the public domain. In December 2015, therefore, the FCO’s Facilities Management Client Unit – the ‘interface’ between the FCO and its private contractors – told the shadow foreign secretary that ‘This email was neither authorised nor seen by any Minister prior to it being sent. The FCO official who wrote the email has recognised that neither the content [confidentiality agreements?] nor tone of it were appropriate and has expressed regret.’ This message added that already, on 17 October, an FCO junior minister – the emollient, highly respected and well-liked David Lidington – had reassured Citizens UK that ‘he would regard it as wrong were any cleaners to be victimised because they had written to Ministers to set out their concerns.’ The fact remains that by the time that Boris Johnson became foreign secretary in July 2016 Interserve was still not paying the FCO cleaners the London Living Wage. Indeed, according to the London Evening Standard, they remained among the lowest paid workers in Whitehall. Johnson claimed to be ‘shocked’ to learn this, and in early 2017 vowed to put the matter right.

By the beginning of 2019 FCO cleaners were said to be on the London Living Wage, although whether this was courtesy of Johnson or his successor in 2018, Jeremy Hunt, I have been unable to determine. In March, however, Interserve stumbled into its own financial crisis and needed to be rescued from insolvency by an administrator acting for the creditors. This situation caused it to tighten the screws on its FCO workers once more. Among other things, adverse contractual changes to payment methods and dates were introduced; cleaners’ hours were savagely reduced; sick pay was lowered; staff were to be tracked by GPS; and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), of which many of the support staff are members, was refused the right to negotiate on their behalf. The trade union at once protested Interserve’s moves and demanded recognition. Failing to obtain satisfaction, in early May it launched the first in a series of short-term strikes and established a foodbank at the FCO to assist severely cash-strapped workers. It also urged that responsibility for the support staff should be brought back in-house, and appealed for sympathetic intervention from the foreign secretary.

After some contradictory signals, in mid-June Jeremy Hunt told picketing workers that he supported their cause and wrote to Interserve to protest their actions. Against a background of allegations that Interserve had employed illegal strike breakers, it was at about the same time – probably not coincidentally – that the private contractor agreed to hold talks with the PCS under the auspices of the independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Strike action was duly suspended but the ACAS talks broke down in early September. Sadly but predictably the new foreign secretary, the hard right-wing Dominic Raab, who replaced Hunt when Johnson became Tory leader and non-prime minister on 24 July, appears to be ignoring the dispute. This is the more discreditable since in a paper published only five years earlier he had specifically cited ‘cleaners’ when sympathising with the practical issues for the low-paid arising from ‘the unscrupulous behaviour of a minority of employers of employees on low wages’ (‘The Meritocrat’s Manifesto’, pp. 37-8).  Come on, Mr Raab. Do the prudent thing as well as the right thing. Kick out Interserve, restore the reality of the ‘Foreign Office family’ –  a notion to which an FCO spokesman paid lip-service shortly before your appointment – and reach a fair agreement with your support staff. Diplomacy begins at home.