The shimmering steel and glass of Canary Wharf bear testament to the financial centre’s opulence. But while billions of pounds pour through its banks each day, it is also the workplace of some of the country’s lowest paid workers – who are now demanding a ‘living wage’.
A group of men stand huddled outside Canary Wharf underground station as commuters rush by, speaking in a slow South American Spanish. They ask not to be named for fear of reprisal by their employer.
As cleaners at Exchange Tower – a fifteen storey building home to Barclays, HSBC and even government regulator the Financial Services Authority – they are paid just 18 pence above the legal national minimum wage of £6.08 an hour. All of the fifteen-strong work crew, originally from South America or Africa, travel from various parts of inner London to get to work.
They say the low level of pay means they struggle to make a living.
“Pay is less than £200 a week. How can you pay the bills, council tax, transport? You are forced to live in poverty,” one man explains.
“I have three daughters – it is not enough to live on.”
Another says he is forced to take other part-time jobs in order to make ends meet, and that it is not unusual to work up to 16 hours a day.
With the cost-of-living soaring in London – average rents have shot up by 12 per cent in the space of a year – and a recent study showing the city to have the most expensive public transport system in the world, they are among the section of the workforce most feeling the squeeze.
Now they are calling on their employers, LCC Support Services, to pay them the London Living Wage, a non-binding standard set by the Greater London Authority at £8.30 per hour in recognition of the high living costs of the capital.
Research by the Greater London Assembly shows that somebody earning less than £7.25 an hour in London will be living in poverty, even after taking benefits and tax credits into account. Nevertheless workforce statistics suggest that six out of every hundred full-time employees in the capital earn below this poverty threshold, with the proportion increasing to nearly 30 per cent of those in part-time hours.
Alberto Durango, organiser at the cleaners’ union, Industrial Workers of the World, says the cleaners’ company refuses to engage in meaningful negotiation.
“In November they offered £6.26 [per hour] – they say this is all the building management will agree to – but since then there has been no further dialogue. This is not enough; we want a decent pay, the living wage. We also want guarantees that in the case of a pay increase they will not reduce staffing levels.”
When contacted, LCC declined to comment. Behind this reticence the company appears in a healthy state. In July last year it was reported that the LCC Support Services, which runs operations nationwide for The Arts Council, Land Registry offices and Royal Mail, had seen its business grow at a rate of £1m per month over the previous seven months.
And their current stance on pay seems at odds with sentiments expressed in a 2008 article by Executive Chairman Bob Vincent. He wrote: “cutting corners with staff salaries is the most effective way of committing suicide…[I]n some areas where housing rents are high, increased wages are paid to the cleaners…”.
This refusal to grant what they see as the minimum required to survive in the city has angered the cleaners. One of them says: “There is a lady who has been working there for fifteen years, always on minimum wage. She has shown loyalty but has not been rewarded.”
There is also resentment that other cleaners on the estate are paid more.
“Cleaners who work in other towers earn £7.25 [an hour],” one man adds. “So why not us?”
“What they pay us is impossible to live on,” says another one of the men, visibly frustrated. “This is supposed to be one of the richest areas in the country – there is no logic”.
That was back in December. A month later and a group of supporters are distributing flyers calling on the living wage to be implemented.
The building management have other ideas, and within a few minutes the group are forcibly ejected by security guards who say they are obstructing private property. Technically this is true: all of the Canary Wharf estate is private property, rather than public realm, and therefore owners can lawfully ask people to leave. Instead, informs the building manager, they can stand at the nearest public space – an overground station situated some 500 yards away – all but thwarting their aim of speaking with people on their way out of the tower.
Alberto explains the stumbling block is the building management company, MGPA, who ultimately decide the value of the contract.
“We were given positive indications they would meet the demand but we are still waiting to hear any formal communication.”
For a company that boasts of managing a private equity property portfolio worth $11bn, this would appear no more than crumbs from the table. When contacted to speak about the matter MGPA declined to comment.
Despite the impasse, members of the union who come to show their support are buoyed by victories at other sites that have traditionally not been unionised.
“We have had success with cleaners working for [contractor] Sodexo at the City of London Corporation,” says Luke Carver, an IWW member who works as a teaching assistant. “There was bullying and harassment but we had people reinstated after 12 hours. I think the employers are surprised; they don’t expect this section of the working class to be organised”.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant