A lot of focus is on Leicester at the moment, and the reasons that the city has been pushed back into lockdown. One part of the narratives that is developing is related to the working conditions of people in the East of the city, which over decades have been casualised and has been left unregulated. There’s an excellent summary of the problem in an article by Professor Ian Clark, Huw Fearnall-Williams, James Hunter, and Rich Pickford of Nottingham Trent University. Their research suggests that “many small-unit garment businesses and numerous roadside hand car washes may have contributed to the spike in cases.” They also attribute the spike in infections to the prevalence of “cramped high-density living conditions, inappropriate social distancing and continued business operation during the lockdown.” This is in addition to the obvious fact that East Leicester has high BAME population who, as many have noted, are at particular risk from the impact of Covid-19.
Leicester’s coronavirus outbreak shows informal workers need greater support and protection, write researchers. https://t.co/kT4dTDk7FF
— The Conversation (@ConversationUK) July 3, 2020
The problem is that many employers in this area “use informal business and employment practices.” These businesses, according to Clark et al, often “operate beyond government regulatory institutions, imposing norms and values that erode accepted business and labour practices.” What further compounds this is that “these businesses are able to “operate in plain sight,” and that they have clearly failed to “comply with employment law, workplace health and safety rules, and environmental regulations.”
The casualisation that is forced on workers in the garment and food packing industries is known to be an ‘open secret’ in the city, something that has been highlighted in the report from Labour Behind the Label, which identifies, and as reported in The Guardian, that there has been a “’shameful’ disregard for worker safety by the factories and the major UK brands operating in Leicester.” When we look at the headlines in our news feeds and on the television and radio news, it would appear, however, that this problem has come from nowhere, and has only just been discovered, when in fact, it is a running illness that is replicated in most of the poorer communities right across the country.
[Update]: There’s an interesting article by Manzoor Moghal for the Mail On Sunday, in which he outlines the social and economic implications of Leicester’s lockdown, but in addition he says “Significantly, too, I am convinced that the South Asian view of death is an additional cultural factor, one which has received little attention. Many people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are what I might call fatalists, believing that we will die when are meant to die and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. This leads to a dangerously laissez-faire view of Covid-19 and other health hazards. One person I know has been refusing to observe social distancing and will not wear a mask for precisely this reason. He believes that his fate is written in the stars.”
Sir Malcom Marmot has shown to devastating effect how the deliberate and carefully calculated policies of the Conservative government of the last ten yeas have been designed to make the poor pay for the misadventures of others. Under the ruse of austerity and balancing the budget, the Conservatives have been stripping away essential social protections and support. The effect is that austerity has been imposed on communities that are less able to defend themselves, or find alternative social provision in the marketplace. As Sir Michael said in a Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh webinar, this is evidence of structural racism. These are also the communities that are less able to raise their voice to challenge these conditions.
The effect of government policy has been disproportionately applied to take from the poorest communities in the UK, and protect richer communities in the South East of England. This means taking from BAME communities, denying them essential support services, such as nurseries and Sure Start Centres, and then blaming them for “not washing their hands enough.” As Claudia Webb, the Leicester East MP has stated, the Leicester East constituency has “42% of children living in poverty, and a significant population of African, Asian, and minority ethnic people.” The two are connected, and the reason they are connected is because of structural racism within the British state, that ignores evidence and which ghettoises and demonises people who are more likely to be adversely affected by depression and poor mental health.
Like Grenfell Tower, the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown should be a wakeup call that we need to do better than this. The response to the pandemic is exposing the UK’s dirty laundry, all the social problems that are brushed under the carpet and ignored. For the last ten years these problems have been glossed over as if they are not important, despite them being in plain site and under our noses. It’s time that we stopped pretending that they will go away by themselves. It’s time that we stopped sharing platitudes and ‘politically correct’ concern for the poorest and most deprived in our communities, just to that we can get a marketing edge. It’s time that we look at what the concrete and practical steps are going to be to ensure that people who are marginalised and pushed out of mainstream democratic discussion are actively brought into the conversations about dealing with this.
There are two things that I am committed to doing, that I believe will make a difference. First, I am unashamedly promoting membership of trade unions. It’s time we pushed past the Conservative Party history and rhetoric of antagonism to unions, and we reinstated trade unions to their rightful place, as an effective tool against workplace exploitation. Trade unions and the Labour movement is rooted in the moral imperative to protect the least able, the least resourced and the least vocal in society. It’s time to actively encourage everyone worried about racism, sexism, homophobia, and the demonisation of the poor to take practical steps to join trade unions. If you are well off and in a secure job, join a trade union and help support and sustain the work that is being done to challenge the exploitation of people in the workplace. It really is a matter of life and death.
Second, I will use my skills and experience to support people to find their voice through accountable and responsible community media. The stories and views that are expressed in our corporate and convenience mass media speak only to the concerns of a small minority. We need to promote effective alternative platforms that enable people to speak freely about their social experiences, the challenges that they face, and the steps they would like to see to fix these inequalities. We won’t end racism, sexism or poverty simply by shoving a microphone in people’s faces and recording vox-pops when there is a problem. We need a long-term programme of media skills and literacies development. We need a long-term programme of civic deliberation and discussion, which includes all communities and social classes of people, but which has the express aim of addressing inequality, misrepresentation and the victimisation of the poorest and most marginalised members of our society.
I often feel that I should be careful not to express political views in my work, but that time has now passed. The urgency of addressing these challenges is immediate. We have to change attitudes, we have to remove bottlenecks and push past the naysayers, and we have to do what we can to ensure that more people at the bottom of the social ladder are heard by those at the top. Those who control the resources which have the potential to transform people’s lives can no longer ignore the problem.