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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here