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.