With International Women

Working Women’s Day banner from the IWGB – and sacked rep Hanna Abebe

March 8th is International Women’s Day, which began in 1909 as a celebration of the previous year’s strike by the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, and the day was organised by the Socialist Party of America; the following year it was adopted by the women’s conference of the Socialist Second International and in 1911 it was widely separated across much of Europe, coming to the UK for a suffragette march in 1914. After the revolution it was officially adpoted in the USSR and later celebrated across the communist world, and by the left elsewhere, becoming a more general event worldwide after it was adopted as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace in 1977.

This year I covered two events on International Women’s Day, first a protest by the Independent Workers union IWGB (previously part of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW) against the sacking of a woman cleaner at Bloomberg’s Finsbury Square offices, and then at the Home Office by Women for Refugee Women calling for an end to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, the closure of immigration prisons such as Yarl’s Wood and an end to the detention of pregnant women.

I’ve photographed many actions by the cleaners, both outside and inside various workplaces. One of their posters states ‘We are NOT the dirt WE CLEAN’, and I remain shocked by how they are treated as second-class citizens and paid a pittance while working at the offices of some of the wealthiest companies in the world in the City of London.

Treating employees with decency doesn’t cost a cent – and generally means they will do the job better. Paying them a wage they can live on in London would only make an infinitesimal impression on the huge profits that most of these companies are making. But they still choose to cheat the cleaners and other service staff by awarding contracts on the basis of saving pennies to contracting companies that treat their workers with contempt and pay them as little as they can.

Some companies have agreed – generally after protests by unions such as the IWGB – to pay the London Living Wage, but even then they often find ways to cheat on the agreements – or the contract goes to a new company which tears them up. Many companies are avowedly anti-union and refuse to acknowledge the union that their employees belong to – and our trade union laws bear down heavily on the unions but allow employers to get away with almost everything.  Trade union reps and others who demand their rights are often victimised – as with Hanna at Bloomberg. You can see more pictures and read more about her case at IWGB Women’s Day protest over sacked cleaner.

Highly visible and audible protests such as this one are often the only way to get companies to take responsibility for what is happening and re-instate workers and improve conditions.  The unions support some employment tribunal cases – and usually win them, but these are slow and now expensive. An unfair dismissal claim and hearing for a single worker costs £1200, an amount intended by the government to stop most people making them, and the claims are often opposed by some of the most expensive legal teams money can buy.

Outside the Home Office I felt a little out of place in an almost  entirely female protest by Women for Refugee Women, though there were a number of people who recognised me and clearly made me welcome. Perhaps it was more in my own mind than in any reality, but at times I felt a little as if I was intruding and not entirely welcome. So perhaps my pictures were a little more distant than usual, rather more taken with a telephoto lens than my usual wide-angle. And perhaps I didn’t always feel able to move exactly where I would want to to get the framing as precise as I like.

Aming those at the event – and later speaking – was the then Green Party leader Natalie Bennett (and behind her you can see one of the few others at the event with a beard.)

I stayed at the event for around 40 minutes, photographing a number of speakers including two Labour MPs, Stella Creasy and Kate Osamor (above) and then Natalie Bennett. It was sceheduled to go on for another couple of hours, but I was getting cold and felt I’d had enough.  Directly opposite where the protest was taking place is a bus stop for a bus which takes me to Vauxhall for my train home, and when I saw an 88 coming down the street I decided to become a “man on the Clapham Omnibus”. That legal hypothetical legal personage dates back to Victorian times, probably first used in court in 1871 – when that bus would have been horse-drawn, but the 88 still follows  for part of its journeys) the same route, though now longer to Knightsbridge but to Camden from its southern terminus now called ‘Omnibus Clapham’. But probably it should no longer be the ‘man’ but the ‘person’ riding it.

Set Her Free – International Women’s Day


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