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‘Open’ London is built on exploited labour

Credit: Getty

Credit: Getty

September 6, 2018   4 mins

You fall in love with a person during the time you spend apart. This is true of my relationship with Britain’s capital city. I moved to London eight years ago. Initially I liked it, then it annoyed me (which unsurprisingly coincided with me being penniless) and then I settled into a general sense of acceptance. It is only since leaving London for an extended period that I have come to appreciate just how much I love the city.

Yet there is often a deep hypocrisy when it comes to the ideology projected on to it.

I am not talking about the alt-right’s depiction of London as a JG Ballard-esque inferno, replete with ‘no-go’ areas for non-Muslims. That image is the product of conspiracism, paranoia and bigotry. My assault on the hypocrisy of the city should not to be confused with some of the barely-disguised attacks on the people who live there by this gang of hot-air merchants. London is, in the main, a welcoming, tolerant city in which people from all backgrounds mix and rub along. In this sense, it really is the liberal metropolis hubristically depicted by sections of the media.

Equality – or more precisely, a rhetoric of equality – that is unmoored from a sense of economic justice is not really equality at all

Yet this feel-good narrative hides a much deeper – and altogether less reassuring – side to London. For our capital city is one of enormous class inequalities, few of which are assuaged by the ubiquitous, back-slapping rhetoric around diversity and inclusiveness. And worse, the narrative of liberal progress is too often co-opted by those who profit from the exploitation of some of London’s poorest residents.

I have experienced this first hand. In 2016-17 I spent nearly three months driving an Uber cab in the capital. Uber – perhaps more than any other company – could be a metaphor for the uneasy relationship between glossy liberal cant and unvarnished economic reality.

The number of private hire drivers in London increased by 13,000 – a jump of 25% – in the two years following the launch of UberX, the low-cost option that most passengers use for normal journeys. In 2012 there were 5,000 passengers using Uber’s app in London; by 2016 there were 1.7 million. As any Uber-using Londoner will know, it is unusual to meet a driver who is not a first or second-generation migrant, while Uber’s own data suggests that around a third of its London drivers come from neighbourhoods with unemployment rates of more than 10%.

In other words, London should be having a conversation with itself about exploitation, in this instance exploitation dressed up as liberation. Many of the Uber drivers I met were not budding entrepreneurs; they did the job out of desperation. “It’s like they’ve accepted it because they’re immigrants, you know,” one Eritrean Uber driver told me of his friends. “I mean, they don’t really have any options”.

During my onboarding session with Uber, we were showered with hip and feel-good rhetoric about the ‘diversity’ of the company by a 20-something, jeans and t-shirt-clad Uber office employee. Progressive buzzwords rolled off his tongue while we were effectively told that workers’ rights were a relic of the past. Money-making – or the idea of it, for you never did make much money as an Uber driver – was recast as something intrinsically bound up with liberal principles like tolerance and diversity.1

This is representative of a certain type of politics, one which self-satisfyingly labels itself ‘open’, in contrast to a parallel and ‘closed’ populist nativism. Liberal London, with its tolerance, its openness – just ignore the impoverished fleet of Uber-Eats and Deliveroo riders and the army of low paid service-sector workers – is cast as a beacon.

Thus, our politics is increasingly as follows: on one side are the alt-right who wish to foment a culture war, and on the other are those for whom a large gap between rich and poor is acceptable – so long as the boardroom which sits atop this hierarchical structure happily features a representative sample of women and non-white faces.

Better boardroom representation is undeniably desirable, but it does little for those who trudge into work every day to clean said boardrooms (and who, by the way, are overwhelmingly non-white and migrant). Much of the city’s wealth is built upon this vast network of exploited migrant labour, yet the mainstream narrative of ‘equality’ rarely equates to giving these people a bigger slice of the economic pie.

Peer beneath London’s floorboards, if you will, and there are people every bit as left behind as those marooned in former collier towns in the north of England. London is the richest part of the country but also the most unequal. After taking into account housing costs, the Capital has a higher proportion of people living in poverty (28%) than anywhere else in Britain. It is within some of the richest London boroughs, such as Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster, that some of the highest rates of poverty can be found – pockets of deep deprivation among vast wealth. And London also lays claim to the highest rate of child poverty of any English region at a third of all children.

Much of the city’s wealth is built upon this vast network of exploited migrant labour

For London’s left behind, the sense of failure is compounded by the visibility of vast wealth just a few blocks away. Streets of beautiful multi-million-pound houses sit cheek by jowl with grim housing estates. For the residents of the latter, the owners of the former may as well be living in a parallel universe.

I remember seeing the glistening penumbra of the Shard through the grimy window of the digs I stayed in when I was an Uber driver. In my shared accommodation, an assorted group of migrant workers slept in beds partitioned off with strips of flimsy cardboard; the Shard’s luxury apartments were on the market for up to £50 million.

According to an analysis of the 2010-12 Wealth and Assets Survey, the most affluent fifth of Londoners owned an average £1.78 million in wealth, compared to the poorest fifth who owned an average of just £4,000.

For all I have grown to love London, its liberal projection encapsulates an ideal that a Spanish friend has termed ‘lean-in multiculturalism’. It is dominated by a temperament which, as the American literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels puts it, “has no problem with seeing people being left behind, as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex”.

To be a hypocrite is often to be half correct. And so it is with London. It is self-evidently right to promote tolerance along with racial and sexual equality. But equality – or more precisely, a rhetoric of equality – that is unmoored from a sense of economic justice is not really equality at all. It certainly has little to say to the Uber driver – or for that matter, to the millions of others toiling away in London’s low pay economy – who have precisely zero chance of diversifying a company’s boardroom any time soon.

  1. ‘Woke capitalism’ was also very much promoted at Amazon, the worst company I have ever worked for in terms of workers’ rights

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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