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Low pay and poor conditions: London's undervalued essential workers

Office cleaner mopping stairs
Office cleaner mopping stairs

Author: Klara Skrivankova, director of grants

For International Workers Day 2024, our director of grants Klara discusses London's issues with low pay, insecure work and labour exploitation.

I recently attended a meeting on London Living Wage along with about twenty other people. At some point we were asked to raise our hands if we knew the name of the person who cleans our offices. Most of us kept our hands down.

That moment was a reminder that we live alongside a large community of invisible workers. We rarely meet these fellow Londoners. Not because they are hiding, but because they work behind closed doors of private homes, in the underbellies of buildings and out of hours.

They are cleaners, domestic workers, carers and nannies. We may not always see them, but we would notice if they suddenly stopped working.

And just as we are often oblivious to their valuable contribution, we also don’t know about their struggles. Low pay means that many of these essential workers can’t make ends meet. 16% of Londoners are low-paid, and in some industries this is significantly higher. Nearly half of all jobs in the hospitality sector (accommodation and food services) in the capital are low pay.

We live alongside a large community of invisible workers. We may not always see them, but we would notice if they suddenly stopped working.

No guaranteed hours also means that many workers don't know how much money they will have at the end of the month. New research found that almost one in three workers are guaranteed fewer than 16 hours a week. On top of this, many Londoners are exploited at work, or in unsafe conditions, such as with inadequate PPE. Some – such as many domestic workers – are on call 24/7, working without any rest and facing abusive employers who are also their landlords – meaning if they leave, they will be homeless.

So, this International Workers Day, we celebrate all these workers, what they do for us and stand alongside them in their collective fight for decent work.

We also celebrate some of our funded partners, organisations that bring together workers and their allies to demand better pay and conditions for those who work away from the public eye and provide essential services.

They include:

The Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) that was set up by and for migrant women and fights for their rights. LAWRS recently exposed routine abuses experienced by domestic workers in London: most never receive written contracts of employment or payslips. The organisation supports domestic workers to enforce their rights and to make their voices heard in campaigns on law and policy.

The Centre for Progressive Change runs a campaign to fight for better working conditions of cleaners. Cleaners were the very workers on the front line at the high of the pandemic keeping us safe. But their pay and conditions do not reflect the importance of their work.

The Nanny Solidarity Network was set up migrant nannies and au-pairs as a mutual aid group during the pandemic. Today the network supports, connects and represents isolated childcare workers making them visible in the fight for better pay, against abusive employment.

The work and achievements of these brilliant organisations remind us that change is possible. But it does not come easy, quick or by actions of a single individual or group. It happens through collective actions of organisations working in different ways towards a common goal.

We can all be agents of change in our workplaces and communities, not just on International Workers Day, but all year round. We can be allies to workers in their fight for better pay and conditions and demand that everyone is paid at least the London Living Wage and guaranteed Living Hours.