Among the most striking findings of this research are first, that recent migrants, mainly from the Global South, dominate the low paid sectors of London’s labour market; and second, that these workers earn very low wages barely above the legal minimum, receiving few benefits despite contributing considerably to the UK tax base. These largely unrecognised workers are vital to the reproduction of urban life, yet remain invisible to most city dwellers and public policy makers. Indeed, these conditions of work do not feature in policy debates about poverty alleviation, or economic and social exclusion, and there is an urgent need to look at this now.
There are also signs that London’s reliance on migrant labour is growing. Our research highlighted the large numbers of such workers involved in core activities such as cleaning, caring and hospitality but anecdotally, we know this pattern is replicated in sectors such as low paid manufacturing and construction. There are also significant numbers within the retail services and postal sectors in London (as indicated in Spence, 2005). Major developments such as the 2012 Olympics and Thames Gateway will also require very large numbers of workers and many of these will be new migrants to the UK.
Our research indicates that much of the low paid economy in London is now characterised by subcontracted service provision. Rather than working directly for Transport for London, the Local Authorities, major corporations or top hotels, the cleaners, carers and chambermaids we encountered were usually employed by a subcontracted service provider. Moreover, in the hospitality and care sectors, the research found that this form of employment was growing. Increasing numbers of the top hotels and Local Authorities are outsourcing their cleaning, catering and caring services. This form of employment is well-known as being a way to cut costs for employers, but it increases the costs borne by those doing the work. As was clear from the findings in the hospitality and home care sectors, workers who remain or used to be ‘in house’ have better pay and conditions than those taken on directly by subcontracted service providers (be they large companies, small agencies or even not- for-profit providers). A number of the workers we interviewed highlighted the problem caused by the structure of employment in these low paying sectors: workers expressed the view that subcontractors are mainly interested in making money rather than the quality of the job done and they have little interest in the loyalty or career development paths of those they employ. This kind of employment depends for its very success on the poor quality of jobs and disrespect for the labour process and the skills on which it depends. Not surprisingly, it is those workers with the poorest labour market options and no opportunity to claim benefits who are taking up such positions. Migrant workers are now literally ‘making our city work’. They are earning major profits for their employers, providing key services for the city, and allowing large public and private sector organisations to ignore their responsibility for the conditions of work.
The living wage campaign seeks to resolve this situation by demanding that public and private sector organisations do take responsibility for the conditions of work endured by those who clean, cater and care on their behalf. If London is to be a socially and economically just city, rather than just an economically successful city,