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Introduction: Low paid work in London

This report is about the low paid workers who keep London ‘working’: the city’s cleaners, hotel workers, and care assistants. Such workers provide vital services. Without them, London would grind to a halt. Yet very little is known about the people who do such jobs, or about the conditions in which they work. For example, London’s Underground system relies on the labour of thousands of people who clean the trains each night ready for the morning rush hour. In every top West End hotel an army of cleaners, porters, kitchen staff and maids ensure the smooth and efficient service for which such hotels are famed. Although vital to the continued functioning of London’s economy, these workers are rarely seen by the public or the customers who take such services for granted.

Recent research by the Greater London Authority reveals that 1 in 7 of London’s workers earns less than £5.80 an hour. As well as low wages, such workers often endure extremely poor conditions of employment, working long or unsociable hours and without the benefits that many take for granted: access to a pension scheme, sick pay or maternity leave. These are London’s ‘working poor’. Although unemployment remains the single most important cause of poverty in the capital, as many as 37% of the children living in poverty in London reside in households where at least one person works (GLA, 2002: 23).

A very significant proportion of London’s working poor are migrants. The number of people coming to London from overseas has increased rapidly in recent years such that the city is now home to a little over 2 million people born outside the UK. Taken as a whole, migrants account for 35% of London’s population and 29% of its working age population. Especially striking is the high proportion of recent migrants (45% of the total number of migrants) who have arrived in the city since 1990 (Spence, 2005).

People from different countries fare differently in London’s labour market. Broadly speaking, people coming to London from high-income countries are more likely than those born in Britain to work in professional and managerial occupations. For example, around a third (36%) of migrants from Japan, and a little under a quarter (23.1%) of migrants from Germany are employed in managerial positions: far higher than the figure for British born Londoners (17.6%). At the other end of the spectrum, people coming to London from the Global South are much more likely to find only low paid work (although migrants from countries like India and South Africa may end up at either end of the occupational spectrum) (ibid.).

Migrants make up a disproportionate number of London’s low paid workers and as many as 46% of all of London’s ‘elementary’ jobs (labourers, postal workers, catering staff and cleaners) are filled by migrants. People from Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and South Asia often find it especially hard to secure well- paid work, even if arriving in the UK with good skills and qualifications. For example, a significant proportion of working age migrants who currently live and work in London but were born in Ghana (50.3%), Ecuador (59.5%), Serbia and Montenegro (45.6%) and Bangladesh (45.2%) are found in the lowest paid occupational groupings. This includes jobs in personal services, sales and customer


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