City of Greed

The UK remains one of the world’s richest countries, 9th in GDP according to current IMF stats, though on a per capita basis we rank rather lower at No 27. Though at $42,041 that’s still around twice that of Turkey, three times thatt of Colombia, four times that of Indonesia and sixty-five times that of the Central African Repulic who come in at number 185. And London has yet again won the international rankings as the city that matters most to the world’s wealthy – to “live, invest, educate their kids, run their businesses”

Possibly the most hateful of acronyms I’ve ever come across is UHNWI. It stands for Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, who may well be totally worthless parasites but have at least $30 million hanging around doing nothing but earn them more money – and there is a huge industry out there hoping to grab a percentage of their almost certainly ill-gotten wad for helping them spend it and make more. It’s sometimes laughably called ‘global wealth’ when their annexation of the great majority of it is a clear cause of global poverty.

Although a small proportion enjoy appearing as philanthropists, giving away some of the vast amounts that exceed what anyone could ever sensibly need, most are in my experience incredible tight-wads – its part of how they (or more often their families) got where they are today. So it comes as no surprise to find that many of the employees at the companies they control are paid the absolute minimum and get sacked if they agitate for even their legal rights – such as the right to join a trade union.

Back in 2006 I photographed the launch of a movement that was meant to fight this, the London Citizens Workers’ Association, a new organisation to support low-wage and migrant workers across London, backed by faith organisations, trade unions and social justice organisations, now widened in scope and known as Citizens UK. It’s still working away, but hasn’t been able to make a great deal of progress. Inequality continues to increase and Britain is now one of the most unequal of European countries in terms of income, with only Greece and Spain worse, and inequality in London is almost beyond measure.

Support from the trade unions has perhaps proved rather disappointing, with some seeming to prioritize the interests of their higher paid members over those at the bottom. More successful at the workplace have been a number of small grass roots unions, owned and run by the workers themselves and with no paid officials, strongest among groups of migrant workers, with whom the traditional unions have perhaps had communication difficulties. And one of the more active is the IWGB, the Independent Workers Union which has organised cleaners to demand respect, decent working conditions and a living wage.

Their noisy public protests are an embarassment to companies, and exert a lot of pressure on them to settle. Unfortunately the rich don’t give up easily, and have developed ways to fight back. Cleaners are employed not by the companies whose offices they clean but by separate cleaning contractors. And when one contractor has been forced to offer its workers a better deal, the contract can simply be put out to tender again, with a new cleaning contractor undercutting the old by cutting the wages and benefits of the staff and increasing workload.

Lutyens House at 1 Finsbury Circus is one of the grandest locations in the City of London, built in the 1920s for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (known more recently as BP). Later tenants included the Nat West Bank, but in 2005 the interior of this listed building was remodelled for multiple occupants. It seems now to be owned by Ivesco, but let to house restructuring specialists, Alvarez & Marsal and leading international law firm, Stephenson Harwood and appears to be the address of over 180 private listed companies. But the cleaners are employed by CCM, a privately owned contract cleaning and maintenance company based in London who work for the commercial property firm CBRE that manages the property.

It’s CBRE who drives down the contract prices and puts pressure on CCM to keep its workforce docile and working to the bone for peanuts, and the IWGB protest was directed at these two companies. The workers say the managers are running a campaign of intimidation and provocation against long-term employees, trying to deny them their employment rights and force them out of their jobs so they can be replaced by new workers with reduced working conditions.

It was a dull day with a little light rain, enough to give some reflections in the city pavements as the protesters walked around in front of the main entrance, watched by a few City of London police and officer workers going out to buy lunchtime sandwiches. Quite a few of the workers stopped to take a leaflet, and some clearly sympathised with the cleaners, though this seemed less common with those who were more expensively dressed. IWGB President Alberto Durango and several other cleaners spoke briefly to let people inside the building and passing by why the cleaners were protesting, and between these speeches the protesters blew horns, shouted slogans, banged drums and made sure everyone in the district knew they were there.

Photographically the only real problem was the rain, and it was light enough to give me little real problem. The lens hood on the 16-35mm in particular offers little protection against rain, and I walk around holding a microfibre cloth balled up in front of the lens filter to keep it dry, removing it only for as long as necessary to take pictures, and checking for any drops after each exposure. I worked at ISO 640 on the wide angle and ISO 1000 on the 28.0-200.0 mm (in DX mode, so 42-300mm equivalent).

Shutter speeds on the longer lens were on the low side, around 1/100th second but few were spoilt by camera shake. The 16-35 has image stabilisation which might have helped, though I often find I’ve managed to turn it off. With this lens I often work quite close to the nearest part of the subject, and even though wider angles give greater depth of field, at f4 to f5 it can still be quite limited, and there are a few pictures where a higher ISO and thus smaller aperture (larger f number) woul have been an advantage. I sometimes miss those depth of field scales on older prime lenses.

IWGB protest victimisation by CCM/CBRE


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My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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