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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR