The dark side of Brick Lane's curry houses

Caterers form the first ever Bangladeshi workers union in the UK, to tackle poor working conditions

There's a whisper spreading between the steaming, sweating kitchens on Brick Lane. It's passing from shop to shop on dark pavements lit with neon lights. It's felt in waiters' quiet nudges and bosses' knowing stares. Bangladeshi workers are gathering in groups a hundred-strong every week, and they want to talk about their rights.

Last night, these caterers formed the first Bangladeshi workers' union in the country. They say they want better working conditions and an end to poverty wages. But as they get organised, every lefty politician, organiser and his dog is trying to claim part of the credit. It's a classic piece of East London politics.

The cause is certainly there. Brick Lane is an area where legislation and workers' rights often do not apply. Caterers are shipped over from Bangladesh and paid an average of £3 an hour without holiday pay. The hours are long, anti-social and come without stability or guarantee. Bosses act as if they are doing employees a favour, and worries about immigration status means that they are often scared to speak out.

Organising in this context isn't easy. Family-run businesses can come with chains of informants, and workers are moved if they start organising. Poor English means they frequently don't understand their rights, and a lack of accredited skills makes it difficult to change jobs. The near infinite supply of workers makes them disposable. It takes guts to turn up to these meetings, and some are already receiving threats.

"I haven't told my boss I'm here," says one chef who supports his wife and baby on £2.50 an hour. "But I know they'll find out soon."

Traditional unions have struggled to organise in this context. Confidence is required to step into these kitchens and cross all the cultural and language barriers associated with them. It's hard to meet when odd hours and changing working times offer little structure. It's a microcosm of the challenges faced by organisers working in a country that is increasingly diverse and a market that is ever more flexible.

But leaders are adapting. Last night, Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick joined Maurice Glasman, Labour councillor Shiria Khatun and GMB organiser and councillor Bill Turner in a room packed with almost all male Bangladeshi workers to launch a new GMB branch. Workers signed their union forms sitting at the white tablecloths in Preem, one of the few restaurants to offer better conditions and space to organise.

Speeches were held beneath glitteringly kitsch chandeliers to the sound of frying in the background. The ethnic media loved it. News traveled to Bangladesh and Dubai as local and international papers covered the story. Waiters got out their mobile phones for snapshots with politicians.

The problem is that not everyone agrees this should be a GMB union. On one side you've got Labour, the GMB and the local council, but on the other you've got the Shoreditch branch of the community organising group Citizens UK and Glasman trying to do something a little different. Although they have worked together to help the group since it started four months ago, membership fees mean that ultimately workers are only going to join one side or the other.

Speak to Shiria Khatun, and the tension is obvious. She says she's worried Shoreditch Citizens has a "hidden agenda" and claims there are rumours that Citizens' organisers have been telling workers that councillors and unions can do little to help their plight.

"I've been quite disappointed with their behaviour," she says. "They seem quite unhelpful and unethical."

Citizens' organisers deny this charge. But it's true they have a different approach to organising -- built on relationships -- that they believe is more effective than the traditional approach pursued by unions, and of course the local Tower Hamlets Labour party leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Whether these splits lead to farce or creative tension remains to be seen, but either way the workers don't need it. They continue to meet on their one day off on Monday evenings, and the numbers are swelling, with some 600 people now on the list. The only Bangladeshi workers organisation around, it is pulling in caterers from Bethnal Green, Luton and Tunbridge Wells. Beneath all the politicking is something genuine. Let's hope all those involved can remember that.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Jess Phillips's Diary: Lazy attacks on “lazy MPs”, and how to tackle the trolls

The Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley takes us through her week.

As parliament kicked us out for the conference recess season on 14 September, several tabloids run the predictable story: “MPs go back on holiday today only NINE days after returning to parliament from a six-week summer break.” I imagine the journalist who churns it out hates doing the same tired “all MPs are lazy baddies” shtick as much as we hate having to rebut the nonsense idea that we are on holiday when we are working full-time in our constituencies.

Legislation is on holiday, not legislators. I have still yet to find an MP who thinks it reasonable that parliament shuts for three weeks for conference season. Why can we not have these conferences at the weekend? Or during the summer recess? Hell, why do we have to have them so regularly at all?

Is the nation screaming out for the politically minded to spend hundreds of pounds sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded Airbnb in a seaside town after a heavy night on warm wine and small food? I’ll wager that you cannot find me a person on the Clapham omnibus – or frankly any omnibus, whatever an omnibus even is – who thinks we should have a week off making laws so that the Lib Dems can do karaoke.

Her Maj

As well as time off for conference, it seems that the Tories will be scurrying home early every Wednesday as well. They appear to be on strike from voting on any opposition day motions as their governing partners, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, play fast and loose with their allegiances. (The DUP backed a Labour motion against raising tuition fees, which the government says is non-binding.)

I and other Labour MPs sat in parliament and watched ministerial cars speed off on 13 September as the whips told the great and good to go home. Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition is a pretty important part of our democracy. If I were Her Maj I might be more than a little peeved that Mrs May cannot be arsed to turn up to fight for what she believes in, whatever that is. Presumably whatever Boris Johnson and his gang say it is this week.

Leave the kids alone

I spent the weekend at a local Labour Party fundraiser, at my surgery, and handing out certificates to hundreds of young people graduating from the National Citizen Service. I sat in front of a lively, wildly diverse group of young people and thought we should hand over managing geopolitics to them for a while. Even the naughty kid at the back (whom I had to scold) gave me more faith than what I see on the news.

Family life

At a debate about the abuse of MPs, the traditional Tory colonel Bob Stewart told the house that his son had been targeted and isolated by his schoolteacher because his father was a Conservative MP.

Now, I’ve had my run-in ins with the colonel in the past, but I was horrified by this – one of my sons is the same age as his. As a parent and an MP I dread the idea that my choices will cause my sons’ grief. I’ve got enough guilt about leaving them half the week without their being targeted and bullied. I once found my son and his mates watching videos about me on YouTube that had been made by men’s rights activists. The vicious content was unsettling enough, but the thought of his teacher joining in the hate is harrowing (and, I’m pleased to say, completely unthinkable at his school). Our families are conscripts to this life – some are conscientious objectors.

Troll detection

So, should we ban internet trolls who abuse MPs online from voting? This is the suggestion floated by the Electoral Commission. I can see the argument for trying to make people treat the electoral system with respect. I also think we have got to have a hard line and a punishment. I’m just not sure how we will decide what is abuse. People say sexist stuff to me all the time. Would a negative comment about my appearance count, or are we talking rape and death threats? (What a time to be alive, when I can give a traffic light system to my sexist online abuse.) To some, the idea of having your vote taken away would only provoke a shrug; but to me it seems too much.

Climb every mountain

I have nearly finished More in Common by my friend Brendan Cox. It is about his late wife, my friend Jo, and is brilliant, but I dip in and out because I want it to last. Reading it makes me feel so tired: maybe because I read it in bed, but also because Jo’s energy and adventures seem exhausting. I like mountains on a screen saver, but I wouldn’t climb one, especially not with a tropical disease or a baby in my belly.

I’m also exhausted because of the ridiculous late nights we seem to be adopting in parliament. Jo’s distaste for the silly hours is covered in the book. She couldn’t understand why we couldn’t start earlier than 11.30am and finish in time for people to see their kids. As I put down the story of her life (and, my god, what a life) I’ll gladly trek for her to the seemingly impassable peak of reforming the voting hours in parliament. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left