The curry house workers of Brick Lane made history this week by creating their first official workers union.
The Bangladeshi Workers Union has over 500 members, mostly from the restaurant industry, but also from manufacturing and other trades. 54 of its members have affiliated themselves with the new branch of the trade union group GMB, with more expected to sign up.
The group has been meeting on Mondays since early August – typically the one night off a week for most restaurant workers. Yet, the group only became affiliated with GMB this Tuesday.
Tower Hamlets Councillor Shiria Khatun, who helped set up the union, said the need for a workers union in this area, known for its low pay and lack of holiday time, is “long overdue”.
The union has recruited members from all over the country, with Bangladeshi workers traveling to Brick Lane from Birmingham and Portsmouth to attend meetings and take the news back to their own communities. Different people attend the meeting each week, though a core group of members return repeatedly to help plan the future of the union.
The founding of an official union began on August 1 this year at a meeting attended by both Khatun and Azmal Hussain, who runs Brick Lane restaurant Preem.
Discussing her reasons for helping to establish the union, Khatun said: “A union is about solidarity and unity, a place where people can get together and share their experiences”.
She now hopes that more women will join up as a very small percentage of current union members are female. A women’s officer has been recruited to help spread the word about the union to female workers.
Hussain said that now the union was affiliated with GMB he hoped more people would be interested. He had been concerned that people might see a union as a “negative” but now “one by one people will know what a union is, and that it gives them insurance”.
Kamali, 47, who works at Preem, is originally from Bangladesh but now lives in East London. He said he will join the union, because “together we can fight for our rights”.
The plan now is for all members of the union to join with GMB, and then to begin working on recommendations for employers of union members. The union members hope to promote the idea of “fair practice” in the workplace, a thing of obvious benefit to employees, and something that business owners can use to draw in custom.
It is hoped that in the next few weeks union members will take to the streets of Brick Lane to promote the union with the help of speeches from Labour politicians.
Round table discussions have been suggested by the workers as a more preferable route to change than demanding new working conditions from their employers. This “new style of approach” is hoped to keep conflict between staff and management to a minimum.
Tower Hamlets MP Jim Fitzpatrick, who supports the union, said: “Restaurant workers in the curry trade have always seemed particularly vulnerable, and the good establishments are being undercut by those who do not pay minimum wage or observe basic conditions like leave.”
One man from Luton is reportedly arranging for several hundred workers to congregate in the town to hear about the union and hopefully to join up, according to Councillor Khatun.
A Toynbee Hall report from 2009 on the working conditions of restaurant workers on Brick Lane can be read here.