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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.