Report after working as a caretaker on an East London housing estate

This report was written after a year working as a caretaker on a notorious housing estate in East London (I won’t use the actual name of the borough and company). Experiences on the job itself, the relationships between colleagues and between workers and management are political. Writing the report is part of an attempt to politicise and collectivise our experiences within the working class, not as part of an idyllic ‘oral history’ or exchange of anecdotes, but as a search for political strategy, which goes beyond the usual campaigning or fetishising of formal organisations. The report address, amongst others, following aspects:

* the relation between housing estates, local political class, ‘community’ and social policing
* the work-force composition typical to London and the differences between types of ‘reproductive work’
* the state of the trade union in an ‘outsourced’ (arms length management) part of the public sector
* the limits of the housing sphere as a potential sphere of collectivity and the difficulty of political intervention

If you have interest in such debates and an urge to find new forms of proletarian practice, get in touch:

1) The East End
2) The housing company and the local state
3) The team
4) The work
5) The conflicts
6) The conclusion

1) The East End

The company itself and the housing estate form part of the specific ‘community’ and local state structure of East London. I haven’t done large amounts of extra-research concerning the mainly ‘Bangladeshi community’ in the East End, but we can state some general elements of its constitution:

a) Historically the East End was an area characterised by migrant working class, mainly due to the docklands, the port of London, which lost its economic significance in the 1970s. The local economy of the East End was dominated by small-scale industrial (mainly garments and food processing) and trading units, which tied the workers – in particular the recently arrived migrants in need for jobs and lodging – more closely to the owners, employers and petty bourgeois section. This was the case before the Second World War, when the area was predominantly ‘White British’ with bigger minorities of Jewish and Irish workers, and this continued after the Second World War (and particularly after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971) when more workers from Bangladesh arrived. While in the mid-1970s the ‘community’ answered the housing questions with collective squatting (up to 1,000 houses were squatted during the peak) [1], this collective struggle died down in the 1980s and became a jumping board for the first generation of ‘political community leaders’. In addition to the economic dependence on the petty bourgeoisie and employers of ‘one’s community’, attacks from the ‘outside’ also forced people closer together. For Mosley in the 1930s and for the EDL today, the East End is the symbol of a migrant ‘parallel society’. The attacks reinforced the feeling amongst the migrant proletarians to have to stick to ‘the community’ for survival.

b) The location of the East End between the City and the other main finance centre, Canary Wharf, means that the pressure on rents and house prices is enormous, in particular after the DLR train-line became operational. The DLR runs through the East End and connects the City and Canary Wharf with City Airport and the commuter suburb. The working class in the East End adjusts to this pressure by moving closer together, it is the area with the highest level of overcrowding and the third most ‘deprived’ borough in the UK. But the community is not homogenous. The second and third generation of people with Bangladeshi origins often obtained multiple landlord positions. For the local political class ‘housing’ is one of the key issues when it comes to electoral populism. From the Liberals to the BNP, electoral success in the 1980s and 1990s was built on agitating racist or communalist sentiments around the housing question. For the (not only Bangladeshi) political class the local housing estates function as ‘vote banks’. Here we see a double dependence of proletarian residents on private landlords and the local political class ‘of their community’, e.g. when it comes to the allocation of social housing. [2]

c) The middle- and upper-class migrants (people with ‘professional education’ or ownership of small garment factories or plantations) who come from Bangladesh are still connected to the political parties ‘back home’ and many of them are proletarianised, shortly after their arrival in the UK e.g. not able to continue their studies due to increasing university fees or realising their university qualifications from Bangladesh are not worth so much in the UK and so forced into lower paid jobs than they were expecting. They see the working condition of the recently arrived proletarians from Bangladesh in the markets, restaurants and small manufacturing units and they also see the increasing police pressure on the youth of the second and third generation (‘anti-gang warfare’). For them the only way out is into the sphere of ‘community organisations’, as middlemen between ‘their community’ and the state and between politics in Bangladesh and the diaspora in the UK. There is a high density of ‘community jobs’ in the East End, most of which follow a neoliberal model of privatised education and policing. The East End is the archetypal laboratory area for urban poverty management – ‘the making of a community’ in the East End during the 1990s was an attempt to contain class dissent through the development of a new layer of ‘migrant entrepreneurs’ against the background of neoliberal incentives and New Labour policies of ‘multiculturalism’ and ’empowerment/self-policing’.

d) The third pillar of middle-class power within the ‘community’ are the mosques. Apart from the obvious religious functions they also operate as business centres (trading) and take over some of the state functions (education, welfare). Schooling is one area in which social segregation expresses itself. The East End has a large amount of faith schools, predominantly Muslim and Roman Catholic. A 2006 survey said: “While 17 East End primary schools have more than 90 per cent Bangladeshi pupils, nine have fewer than 10 per cent. Three of the borough’s 15 secondaries have less than 3 per cent Bangladeshi pupils, while two have more than 95 per cent Bangladeshi pupils and three over 80 per cent.” With many faith schools, the segregation according to gender plays an additional role. In terms of the general ‘community’ segregation, there has been a fair bit written about the shift from (often explicitly class-based) anti-racist struggle amongst the South-Asian ‘community’ in the 1970s, to either entrepreneurship or unemployment/drugs in the 1980s and 1990s and towards the ‘religious identity’ from the 2000s onwards, in particular after the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’. [3] It might seem too simplistic, but we can say that with the economic isolation of the migrant proletarians (less jobs available in the public sector or industry), ‘religious unity’ seems to be one way to endure both these relations of ‘community internal dependency and exploitation’ and outside pressure by the state’s migration regime and fascist elements.

e) It was the particular relation between the middle-class section (small business men etc.) and the dependent migrant proletariat which led to the fact that during the London Riots in 2011, the riots stopped exactly at the border between Hackney and the East End, although the youth and working class people in the East End in no way face a lesser degree of poverty or police hassle. The local businesses, and the political and religious class made sure that there was peace in their backyard e.g. through ‘respected’ community leaders patrolling the area . It is the same coalition that is able to mobilise ‘the community’ to oppose the various attempts of the EDL to demonstrate in the East End, but which at the same time make sure that the counter-demonstrations practically and ideologically stay within the boundaries of ‘democratic multiculturalism’.

f) It is clear that also the upper-class section of the ‘Bangladeshi community’ is everything but a monolithic block, which becomes visible, e.g. during the sometimes violent conflicts about the Bangladesh ‘liberation’ war crimes of 1971. What interests us more is the question of what could shake up the current community integration of the local working class? Up to now the East End local political class, first of all represented by the mayor, managed to keep up the semblance of protecting the local population against the onslaught of the cuts, using local papers like East End Life as propaganda tools. Not so much the bedroom tax, but more the benefit cap will hit hard in the East End in the near future, which will to a certain extent shake up the relationship between proletarian sections of the community and the political leadership. We can see how the local state uses ‘community structures’ as seismographic tools regarding the impact of the cuts and crisis, while at the same time the funding of these structures is under threat. This might strengthen the religious forces, e.g. the increase in religious school education is noticeable. Here it will depend on whether the revolutionary left is able to address the ‘proletarian condition’ and not the ‘community’ e.g. during mobilisations against the cuts or fascist threats. This would mainly require an understanding of the ‘community’ less as an ideological problem, but as a contradictory material necessity for the working class under particular conditions.

g) In the case of the East End, apart from a materialist proletarian critique of ‘the community’, a thorough understanding of the material basis of ‘corruption’ is necessary. The right and far-right points out the levels of corruption in the East End, e.g. vote rigging during local elections, and blame ‘minority communities’. This escalated again during the latest scandal end of March 2014, when the Bangladeshi mayor was accused of having favoured charities of ‘his community’ with council money. We have to point out and analyse deeper the three main pillars of corruption: the more personal relation between the working class and their exploiters; the re-structuring process which shifts property and business relations from ‘the state’ to ‘the market’ and back (public-private partnerships!), which needs ‘corruption’ as a greasing element (construction contracts, consulting contracts etc.); last but not least, the enormous churning in the East End when it comes to real estate developments, due to its ‘prime location’. [4]

h) The East End is also the first location where ‘community’ trade unionism meets with the political and business class in order to manage urban deprivation. We limit ourselves to quote from their press statement announcing the opening of the UNITE community centre in May 2013:
“A new community centre in [the East End] – to help people in one of the most deprived areas of the UK with employment and welfare issues – is the first of a number of such centres that will be rolled out by Unite, the country’s largest union. Unite has opened the centre with support from Tower Hamlets council and a capital grant from Barclays to fund a state of the art learning suite. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, executive mayor Lutfur Rahman and group employee relations director for Barclays Dominic Johnson will be at the opening ceremony. The centre will offer various educational courses, such as IT skills and offer assistance to find employment, from creating a CV to interview preparation. Centre staff will also advise on the growing number of welfare and benefit issues in London’s second most deprived borough. Len McCluskey said: “As part of a drive by Unite to empower communities, the new centre will help people take charge of their lives and have a greater say in their futures on issues such as work, education and health.” Lutfur Rahman said: “I am delighted to be working closely with Len McCluskey, Unite and Barclays bank in making this community centre a reality. Job creation is one of my top priorities and this centre is going to play an important role in helping people find work. Dominic Johnson said: “It is important that Barclays plays a broader role in the communities in which we live and work, […] , such as supporting projects like this and our existing educational and employment support programmes such as LifeSkills and Barclays Spaces for Sports.” – End of quote. As a side remark: It is not just ironic, but part of the plan that after public English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses were cut in the East End after a long struggle of teachers and students, community centres such as the UNITE one now offer English classes on a much more casualised employment basis – UNITE actually offering ‘free’ online courses. [5]

2) The housing company and the local state

Against this wider background we can see how the housing sector and the company responsible for the management of former council housing stock form an essential part of local governance. East End Homes is formally owned by the council, but operates as an ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation), a decision taken by a Labour government. ALMO basically means that management and maintenance of the 22,000 council homes are outsourced to EEH, a ‘company’ which has a separate ‘revenue’ and has to (officially) make ends meet with it. The outsourcing happened during the crisis year 2008. The fact that EEH workers have to deal with around 70,000 local working class residents every day on EEH housing estates makes EEH an important instrument of the (local) state – the total population of the East End Borough is just above 250,000. At the same time the ALMO is not only a formal business alternative to either council ownership or ‘free-market’ management of EEH. In the daily operations of EEH we can see how ‘neoliberal politics’ (making use of market pressure, the ideology of individual responsibility and private ownership) are intertwined on all levels (with regards to residents, ‘local population’ and EEH workers) with a strategy of centralised state control. This is strangely symbolised in the companies headquarters: it is located in the high-value financial district of Canary Wharf, in an office block called ‘Jack Dash House’. Jack Dash was a ‘communist’ and dock workers’ trade union leader from the 1940s to the 1960s. Here are just a few points on the different levels of how the state tries to mobilise ‘market forces’ in order to run itself better:

a) East End Homes itself is the result of a political decision under particular economic circumstances. In 2008 the state had to pay around £200,000 to turn the existing public council housing administration into a formally ‘independent’ ALMO – major expenditures followed for company logos and expensive consultants from ‘private sector real estate companies’ (e.g., many of them later on hired as EEH managers. Workers were shifted, they retained their terms and conditions, but were not ‘council workers’ anymore. One major reason for this shift was the central government decision to grant funds (Decent Homes scheme) only to those councils, which outsource their social housing administration. This was part of the government strategy to open the social housing market to finance and sustain the housing bubble – the main pillar of the current economic cycle in the UK. During the first year EEH was permanently on the verge of formal bankruptcy and the local state had to prop up its budget, e.g. in 2010 EEH overspent its budget by £2.4 million. It was clear that under the current conditions (crisis, credit squeeze) a full privatisation would probably end up in disaster. Connaught, one of the main construction companies that the council outsourced refurbishment to, also went bust in 2010, after ‘financial irregularities’. In this sense the ALMO is a crisis product, which is supposed to simulate market conditions in order to facilitate restructuring, while at the same time its function of ‘social integration’ is of political importance for the state, and so cannot be left to the rocky sea of the ‘private sector’.

b) With the ‘company form’ also the process of ‘privatisation’ of the housing stock accelerated. In 2008 about half of the total housing stock that EEH managed was ‘council property’, within the next five years this number came down to 30 per cent, meaning that the majority of former council houses are now privately owned. This is significant, given that the East End is still seen as the London borough with the highest proportion of social housing. During this five-year period a lot of social housing estates were demolished or refurbished – the model was to finance the refurbishment of social housing by building or expanding the number of privately owned flats or lease-holding.

c) On the housing estate level, these ‘development programs’ became not only a lucrative business operation, they became prime occasions for electoral campaigns and local governance schemes. The Pacific Estate where I worked was Tony Blairs and the local mayors prestige object: it used to be a notorious estate with the cheapest heroin in the UK and other stereotypes of badness. The political class tried to blackmail the local residents to accept a ‘privatisation’ of their estate, which meant demolition of some tower blocks and relocation of some residents through ‘compensation schemes’. There was a systematic running down of the partly empty housing blocks – which partly attracted ‘drug users’. The promise was that if residents would accept a transfer of housing stock from council to ‘registered social landlords’ (housing associations etc.), the estate would receive all of the wonders of local welfare (apprenticeships for the local youth during the refurbishment period, more community officers and community services, more security) and £200 million total investment. In 2006 the 1,600 affected residents refused this proposal, but the refurbishment and displacement took place nevertheless, although slightly different from the original ‘New Deal for Communities’ plan. [6]

d) EEH is in touch with around 70,000 working class people who live in EEH managed houses. The regular EEH residents’ newsletter is full of ‘social advice’: who to address in case of personal or financial trouble, who to address anonymously in case of observed crime or anti-social behaviour. It is clear that this is not just neutral ‘community help’ information. It is clear that all community services are in close cooperation with state administrations and authorities, including the police and local political representatives. EEH also makes use of their ‘front-line staff’ in order to keep in touch with residents ‘socially’, which in the end means politically. EEH employs around 150 caretakers, basically cleaners. Having such a mass of people employed on the housing estates, it would be inefficient if you just gave them a broom and mop. First of all you dress them in uniforms which are the spitting image of local community police uniforms or at least of security guards. Secondly, you order as part of the daily cleaning duties, the reporting of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Thirdly, you pay for them to go to a one-day workshop where you school them about the impact of the austerity measures on the residents and how to get upset residents in touch with the right government administrations e.g. in order to apply for hardship funds. Here we can see that EEH is not at ‘arms length’, but rather close to the local state. As cleaners we were encouraged to get to know personally the 27 housing officers on EEH estates, the councillors, the 8 ASBO officers, the enforcement officers, the people from social services and the ‘community champions’. Here are some examples of EEH ‘local community/governance’ initiatives in 2013.

“East End Homes residents launch access-all-areas scrutiny review of Anti-Social Behaviour. Over a 7 month period, residents worked closely with East End Homes staff reviewing the ASB service. By combining the unique insights of residents, with the expertise of staff, the ASB Scrutiny Panel were able to carry out an in-depth, review of the service. East End Homes’ access-all-areas approach, along with the assistance of expert staff, has allowed us to make useful recommendations that will hopefully have a significant impact.”

“Many people enjoy leading. East End Homes, in partnership with CMC and TELCO, are offering residents the opportunity to take part in an exciting and innovative course designed for people who want to be Community Leaders. The Community Leadership programme will help you to become more confident in yourself and more active in your community. You will learn about leadership skills, fundraising and organising community projects as well as how to influence decisions that will help you make a difference in your neighbourhood. You will plan and develop your own community project for which some funding will be provided. The course will also help you gain vital skills needed to find employment. Up to £2000 available for the best projects.”

“East End Homes Local Business Day. As part of East End £181 million Decent Homes programme, our contractors have committed to investing 50 per cent of their total spend in local businesses. You’ll have the chance to meet with our main Decent Homes contractors, learn more about the Decent Homes programme, and network with other local enterprises. Our five Decent Homes contractors (Breyer, Axis, Richardson, Chigwell, Keepmoat) rely on providers of materials, plant hire companies, caterers, tradesmen, professionals and much more, and this is your opportunity to get involved! In preparation for the Local Business Day, East End Homes will also be hosting a FREE training session, to give you the best possible chance of securing new business from our main Decent Homes contractors.”

e) These blurry lines between ‘public sector functions’ and ‘market form’ can lead to confusion, expressing itself in what people might call ‘corruption’. EEH cleaners are the lowest paid employees of the ALMO. For local councillors and other elected members of the political class housing estates are de facto vote banks. The local political leaders want to show their face every now and then, so they offer ‘two weekly surgeries’ in the EEH office on the estates. But they don’t want to sit in the office waiting for nobody to come. So they ask the management of EEH to pay overtime to the cleaners, who then have to sit in the office during ‘surgery times’ and call the councillor in the unlikely event that someone turns up. This is just one example of the by-product of the current constellation between ‘outsourced business’ and the political class. On the higher-up ranks this mainly concerns high paid jobs for consultants and the favouritism of allocating contracts. All top managers at EEH are (male) ‘white British’, meaning that at least on that level corruption is not a question of ‘minority communities’.

f) While keeping its ‘political function’ when it comes to social integration of the residents, EEH makes use of ‘market pressures’ and neoliberal ideology when it comes to dealing with its workers and residents and their ‘working class interests’. Although still half of the 550 EEH employees are official members of a trade union, EEH management promotes the ‘staff forum’, a kind of neoliberal representative board, which talks about conflicts over tea-breaks, but mainly organises corporate fun -events. In a similar way EEH tends to ignore classic tenants and residents associations, and instead tries to establish an ‘open communication’ between ‘clients’ (residents) and company, largely based on market-research types of surveys. When it comes to putting pressure on employees, e.g. caretakers, the argumentation is often at the market level: elaborate statistics show how much cheaper or better the service of ‘private’ housing management companies are, or surveys about the satisfaction of residents are presented as customer feedback, as feedback of people ‘who pay a lot of money for their service’. It is therefore not by chance that complaints about caretakers and their work largely came from ‘service charge payers’, meaning the private owners’and leaseholders on the estate. The 5 per cent rent increase for EEH tenants from April 2014 onwards were similarly explained as an economic necessity to ‘run the business’. Monetary pressure was also present in the announcement by EEH management that residents in housing blocks with a higher rate of documented ‘anti-social behaviour’ will have to pay higher service charges. In general it was surprising that the ‘big society’ type of ideology (we need less money from the state for services, instead we put in voluntary work as a community), did not prevail, apart may be from attempts to set up urban gardening projects, which were not too popular. There is a lot of voluntary work, but this is done within the framework of professional charities, not so much as a ‘community effort’.

g) In 2010 and 2013 compulsory redundancies were on the agenda at EEH. The argumentation was two-fold. Partly it was argued as a necessity due to ‘too high internal costs and too little revenue’ of EEH, but in the end the main reason for why people were supposed to leave was ‘political’: the local government cuts and the direct and indirect impact on EEH finance. In 2010, when 80 out of 500 EEH employees had to go, the words of the EEH big boss were: “Like all public sector organisations, we are having to make cuts and do the same or more for less. We need to find £4.424m of savings over the next three years, of which £3.458m needs to be found for next year – there is no way of making these savings without employing fewer staff.” In 2013 all sixteen team leaders had to re-apply for their jobs and after a ‘fair competition’ fourteen were taken back on in their old positions. In both 2010 and 2013 the reasons for redundancies were presented as outside of the influence of management. In this way EEH reflects the general trend of austerity: cutting better paid jobs and at the same time creating the ideological (and repressive) background for more ‘voluntary work’ in order to keep unemployment socially integrated.

3) The team

The following sections deal with our team, with the work we do, with the relations to the residents and finally with open and hidden conflicts at work.

There are in total 550 workers employed at EEH, out of which 150 are caretakers on the estates. The average team consists of ten workers plus team-leader. Around 12 out of 150 caretakers are women. At the end of 2012 EEH hired six new caretakers, they received around 140 applications. Half of those hired had worked for EEH before, through temp agencies. At the end of 2012 EEH management made the decision to stop the employment of temporary agency staff. While six new permanents were hired, around twenty agency staff had to go, so it was actually a job cut.

The formal working conditions are relatively better than in the ‘private sector’. You get sick pay, they pay overtime bonus, the annual pay based on a 35-hour week is £18,000 (around £8.50 p/h), which is around £2,000 more than you get as a caretaker if you are employed by other housing associations or companies, where you often have to do regular weekend duties too. EEH promise you a ‘job for life’, although as it turned out later, it might be a short life. The work relations, grievance procedures, health and safety training, corporate inductions etc. are very regularised. This might have good sides, but it has its flip-sides, e.g. you have to go to ‘feedback conversations’ after having been off sick. Then you get ‘monitored’ and management decides whether you have crossed one of the three ‘trigger-points’, which can lead to dismissal. In comparison to the UK average sickness levels might be a bit higher, but they still don’t explain why management introduced these measures: Overall, on average, EEH loses 11 days per employee a year, with an average wage of 115 pounds per day. For our department (Environmental Service) it was 17 days with an average wage of 85 pound – this ‘calculation’ with pounds per day loss is obviously from a management report.

It was funny to see how even the ‘public sector’ culture of job training is slowly privatised and corrupted. We had a health and safety ‘how to handle chemicals’ training, which was done by ‘Greener Solutions’ sales reps, who supply the council with all kinds of cleaning products. So they mainly used the paid training as a product show, they told us about the new ‘Power 2000 wall spray’ and ‘spring-dew air freshener’, then at the end rushed through five points about health and safety and gave us an official certificate. Meaning that the council can say that we got ‘professional training’ without having to pay (much) for it and Greener Solutions gets a foot in the door, knowing that managers seek advice from the ‘front-line staff’ when doing their material orders. Much of the other job training is at the same time ideological schooling about ‘diversity and community’ and the tasks and responsibilities as ‘front-line staff’, which ranges from knocking on doors to check on ‘vulnerable residents’ and helping them with shopping bags to reporting criminal activities and giving advice about ‘who to contact’ in case of all sorts of grievances. In this way the ‘cleaning job’ expands into a low-level, but permanent social work, which is actually not reflected in the wage.

The workforce composition is very representative of the current London working class, apart from the fact that hardly any workers with South Asian background are employed: the older workers are white-cockney or from an Afro-Caribbean background, the more recent workers are mainly from African countries or Eastern Europe. Just to give a (stereotypical) idea about the composition of our team: a white Hackney estate kid with a fair amount of drug and gang experience; a stranded and fallen ex-law student who used to be a member of the Socialist party in Portugal; a middle-aged woman from Poland who took part in Solidarnosc protests in 1980, was black-listed and survived black-marketeering and worked as a painter and decorator in Italy in the 1990s; an ex-textile trader from Nigeria, who used to do business in Bombay and Saudi Arabia and went bust in 2008; and West Ham fans, ex-pirate radio and squat party techno DJs, pretty openly gay East Enders with “seven brothers and sisters who don’t fuck about when push comes to shove” (he said that offering practical help to one of the work-mates who had outstanding debt), ex-Park Royal Guinness brewery workers and some other representative members of the local proletariat. If we would look for ‘diversity’, we would find much of it amongst ourselves. In this constellation there is no minority amongst us, apart from the fact that only two out of ten of us are women.

In terms of the composition of the workforce it is necessary to debate why only a few of the caretakers are women, while they form the majority of domestic cleaners. Basically we don’t do much else apart from cleaning, other than the occasional carrying around of bulk rubbish and doing a bit of DIY (changing light-bulbs, really). The occasional ‘heavy lifting’ cannot really explain why management would prefer men or – as a long-term consequence of the former – why women don’t go for caretaker jobs. The major difference is obvious: men clean outside the home, women clean inside. The image of ‘vulnerable’ women working alone on rough housing estates will be another factor of the gender imbalance. The team-leader referred to both of these reasons when he decided to let the two women work on estates closest to our tea room or when he asked male team-members to help the women pulling around full rubbish bins. Another obvious question concerning the composition is why in a largely Bangladeshi area there are no Bangladeshi caretakers. This will have something to do with ‘being seen doing dirty work’ by other community members, but then a fair amount of bin men are of Bangladeshi background.

Despite the relatively good wage for ‘unskilled manual labour’ everyone is pretty broke. The work-mate from Poland pays £1,200 a month on rent for herself and her working son, that’s all of her wage. Another of us recently moved out from Hackney to Romford, because rents were too high. By the end of January most of the team members are completely broke and exchange tips on money-lending or ask the team-leader for fifty quid. One of us, he is in his mid-20s, has £12,000 debt and has handed over his money management to a financial institution: they hold the creditors at bay by regular instalments and a formal guarantee and only pay out what he has agreed ‘to really need’. Most of them know that they would not find a similar job again, because they are too old, or illiterate, or have a bad CV. This has quite an impact on the general atmosphere. Eight out of ten members of the team display clear signs of depression, because of lack of money and the daily repetition of cleaning up other people’s mess. At the same time there is a common knowledge that this job is relatively secure and a haven in the rough sea of the labour market. There is discontent with a lot of things, amongst others the years of wage freezes, but it feels like only the threat of redundancies would move things substantially towards conflict. There is little overtime, but everyone scrambles for it. Some of us painted stairs and staircases at the weekends, nice extra-money, but working 21 days without a day off sucks.

We have breaks together, but it is rare that everyone talks together. One of the few occasions when everybody talked was after the Woolwich attack, when a UK born Nigerian Muslim convert killed a British soldier. The situation was interesting, because working class people from different ‘ethnic and religious backgrounds’ who work together everyday were suddenly facing the threat of ‘tension between the communities’ in London or even the UK.
The team-leader, a White-British middle-aged Cockney and another White-British colleague who is – according to mainstream categorisation – on the ‘loser-side’ of life (end of 30s, living with parents, semi-literate) talked about the ‘sleepers’ and the problem of ‘uncontrolled migration’. The position of the team-leader is interesting when it comes to understanding modern right-wing perspectives amongst the working class. He was born and grew up in the East End, and he saw it change and the white-working class ‘community’ dissolved (dockers, printers, neoliberal boom, people moving towards Southend). He is to a certain extent nostalgic when it comes to this ‘community’ and somehow is suspicious of the fact that according to his view everyone else has a community (Bangladeshis etc.) and knows how to make use of it. At the same time, given the fact that he made his way up in the 1990s, from an unskilled labourer to a combined income of 70,000 pounds and a paid-off council house, he is quite a Thatcherite. The dockers and miners went too far, the black cab drivers hold everyone to ransom, there has to be competition, individual incentives. He talks badly about EEH management and the fat cats and he means it. The other White-British workmate who often comes out with EDL-type positions is similarly suspicious of the fact that other migrant groups have communities. It is quite telling that he is the only one in the team who goes to the trade union meetings, which are largely visited by the older (white) workforce. He accuses ‘the Africans’ of never getting engaged in such collective structures. He says he can see that ‘the Africans’ used to be something better in their home country and ‘they still have a nice big house back home to return to’ and ‘they still do a lot of trading over the phone’.
The Nigerian Muslim workmates were obviously in a scary spot, the newspapers full of hate-speech towards the ‘Nigerian Muslim’ who had killed the innocent little army drummer. They felt the need to express to everyone that the killers are ‘nutters’. It was difficult to talk about the question of whether they feel more unsafe in London now. They insisted that it was a singular and individual case.

The woman from Poland came out with very anti-Islamic stuff and showed videos of allegedly ‘Muslim fundamentalist’ demos in London, demanding Sharia law. One argument was quite clearly influenced by her experience in Poland: she said that there, all women used to work and were equal and that these Muslims want to change that in Western society. It might be true, that due to high female employment there was more gender equality in Poland before 1990, but it also leaves out the conservative Polish Catholicism, which she displays every now and then. She does not like ‘multicultural London’, because it is anonymous and people are closed up. She does not like to stay too close to the Polish ‘community’, because ‘they drink too much’. She said she was happier in the South of Italy where she worked as a painter and decorator, because it was less urban, but unfortunately the work was too precarious.

The position of the rest of the guys, basically white and ‘mixed-race’ London-born lads, expressed a certain cluelessness: the attacker was a London born kid, with a London accent, grown up in a working class London area, similar to how they grew up themselves, he had never been in the war areas of Iraq or Afghanistan he was talking about in reference to the reason for his deed, so how could he do what he did? The workmates had the assumption that once you are born in London or spend most of your life here you ‘become a Londoner’, no matter where you or your parents are from. A proletarian melting-pot kind of thought. How is the world and London changing that someone is affected so much by what happened somewhere else on this planet that he jumps out of this melting pot and turns fundamentalist? Somehow an understandable cluelessness, at the same time it ignores ‘what the British state does globally’ and how that affects things here: be it the status of London as a financial centre or of Britain as a military power. They would not see that ‘Britain’ is at war, or at least that British fighter-jets drone-kill some Afghani civilians. This attitude also tries to close its’ eyes to the fact that London’s economy ‘does not integrate anymore’, that the divisions within the working class are becoming more pronounced.

4) The work

In our team we don’t actually work together (only sometimes more than two people sweep or shovel snow or carry bags of rubbish down the stairs together). The ‘backgrounds’ do not play too much of a role, there was largely a collective response towards the daily grind. The basic caretaker work on an East London housing estate is predictable: litter picking, sweeping, mopping, polishing, getting rid of graffiti, carrying around (bulk) rubbish, wheeling around rubbish bins, changing light-bulbs, reporting necessary repairs and so on. There are fixed schedules for what has to be cleaned daily, weekly, monthly. There are rules: no smoking at work, no phoning etc., which are always broken, but lurk in the disciplinary background. There are regular quality checks, your block gets marked gold, silver or bronze. The whole estate or team is also marked.

You clean the communal areas of about 100 to 150 flats, around 300 or so residents. There are about 3,000 residents in total. The blocks are different, some are very over-crowded, some staircases are shooting or smoking galleries, so there is more or less to do depending on where you are. Your area might be vast, big grassy bits, or tower blocks with many floors. You need a bit of coordination, otherwise you keep on running throughout the day: what to do in which order, where to keep certain cleaning equipment. Then there are residents who approach you about personal help or conflicts, mostly complaints about blocked drains, about puke on the staircase. If you have a regular day you won’t kill yourself on this job. There is time to hide somewhere together and talk or read. There are other days, usually autumn days (leaves) or winter days (snow), or post-weekend days (bodily fluids) or end of term (students chucking all their stuff over the balcony), when you run all day.

Like other cleaning work, the work is repetitive on a daily level. During the day you might have different things to do, but you do them again the next day. You don’t see anything grow or growing up, or changing, or being produced due to your work. If you were producing yet another crappy electronic device or polluting car that wouldn’t give your work much more sense, but you have in the most abstract sense ‘created’ something and this something contains not only your individual, but everyone’s effort. But beyond material production, you also don’t heal, teach or care for people directly. These are quite fundamental differences within what is nowadays lumped together under the term ‘reproductive work’. No news that if you lock people into such cycles, they get bitter. You blame others. Or you blame yourself. Particularly, not surprisingly, the older workmate from Poland saw it as a sign of disrespect towards her that residents regularly dump rubbish in the staircase. She said that she preferred painting walls.

And then there are quite significant differences of social status, even relating to the same work task. When running around litter-picking it is clear that on one hand this is a kind of degrading work: you pick up stuff that other people have decided is worthless and most often did not care to dispose of properly. In other countries litter-pickers are looked down upon and it becomes a stigma. They also earn some ‘recycling money’ from the stuff they pick. That is quite a difference in itself. In Western Europe generally you can still walk about litter-picking with your head held high: people still see rubbish workers and bin men as people who have struggled for some status, as part of the ‘decent’ working class. To see this ‘respect in society’ just as an effort of these workers to ‘affirm themselves as workers’ and to turn even a shit job into something respectable expresses middle-class arrogance. But it is palpable that in towns like London with increasing casualisation and ‘privatisation’, this type of work is becoming increasingly stigmatised again, people are now used to seeing ‘poor newly arrived Africans’ doing this work, knowing that they very likely don’t have a council job.

The relationship to the residents or the people who you clean up after is complex. They are working class people, living in quite run-down places, so you think that they should have a right to live in a clean space. Then you think that a certain carelessness comes from the fact that they know that someone will clean things up or that they don’t know what an effort it can be. You get close to ‘big society’ ideas: if the residents would come together and clean up together, that would at least create closer relations and some feeling of ‘this is our place where we live together’. And other people would not have to become cleaners for life. But then there is a labour-market logic and reality which overrides these thoughts. The team-leader always said that the place should not be too dirty, otherwise we get in trouble. But that if the degree of dirtiness drops under a certain level, we would be unemployed. So you feel thankful for the occasional piss in the lift.

Talking about piss in the lift: in one year nobody really filled in any of the ASBO report sheets, apart from one workmate. He wrote more or less everyday the same thing: urine in the lift. Obviously there would have been lots of things to grass about, kids smoking skunk, crack-smokers in the bin-chambers, kids hanging about being messy. First of all, most of us were quite sympathetic towards, if not actively engaging in, that kind of behaviour. Secondly, you don’t want to be seen as a grass by the local kids. So yes, everyone tries to stay away from the ASBO officers or the cops when they come to the estate. But I heard through the management reports that on other estates teams were reporting a lot, though obviously we should take that with a pinch of salt. Who knows. The same about the 24-hour graffiti removal policy of EEH. They want to have a smooth clean coating covering a rather miserable proletarian condition. They want things to look respectable for the many private estate agents who frequent a formerly notorious estate.

Working as a caretaker on a housing estate means that most of the time you slog away alone or with another caretaker, but there are a fair amount of other workers you meet and occasionally cooperate with: you meet and have a chance to talk to postal workers, gas meter readers, social workers or construction workers who ask for access keys or other estate related information. The closest cooperation is with the bin men, and if you don’t cooperate, things get messy. We normally pull the bins out of the bin chamber to the collection points, the bin men push them back in after collection. Sometimes they forget to re-open the rubbish chute, which results in blockages, which is a real pain. If they forget a collection, on the next day bins are overflowing and you can spend two hours up to your waist in rubbish, shovelling stuff into extra bins. At least you can ‘read the rubbish’, like a stinking collage of private life, love letters, porn mags, ugly easter decorations and so on. The ‘missed collections’ have increased since the bin men were outsourced to Veolia.

You stumble over contradictions of division of labour, also outside of the immediate production sphere. The lift service and maintenance has been outsourced to Kone. We are supposed to call the repair hotline of EEH if a lift breaks down, they call Kone and Kone is supposed to get back to us to arrange for someone to come out. It means that often we spend half an hour on the phone, waiting in various loops, while residents complain that they ‘never see us cleaning, always on the phone’. Other examples concern the refurbishment of the estate. Architects in probably swanky far-away offices designed new roundabouts and cornerstone arrangements. Unfortunately the roundabouts were too small for rubbish trucks to go around, which meant that we had to pull the full 300 kilo bins 200 metres to the main road. Shit like that. Or legal absurdities: we are asked to knock on doors of vulnerable residents, but are never allowed to enter their homes without another witness.

The relation with the residents varies a lot. Some people, mainly those who pay service charges, grass on you if they think that you don’t work hard enough for what they have to pay. Big posters tell them which tasks we are supposed to perform daily, weekly, monthly. Fortunately there are only about 30 per cent owners on this estate. Sadly enough, sometimes you find yourself wanting to educate people: if you are too lazy to carry down your rubbish yourself I will let it pile up for at least four days, otherwise you will take it for granted that I perform an extra service and carry it down for you. The EEH management tries to institutionalise this gut reaction by asking us to issue first yellow and then red cards to people who leave their rubbish on the landing. In order to find out whose rubbish it is we are supposed to open it and look for letters with addresses on them. The residents are then fined. No one in our team bothered with these cards. Most people rush in and out of their flats and it is not that easy to form relations with them, which is not mainly due to a language barrier. The pensioners talk more, many of them have been on the estate since it was built in the 1950s. They meet in the community hall, invite us to sit down and drink tea.

There were no evictions or other ‘austerity related conflicts’ on the estate during 2013, at least not openly enough for us to notice them. Once in a while ‘social services’ come for special home-visits, the cases I witnessed related to elderly people on the drink. There is a fair amount of ‘petty crime’ going on, stuff that you would have to look at politically from case to case. For us these events were material for gossip chats during break-times, like a strange estate soap opera. Cops raided flats which were actually ‘illegal’ Chinese DVD manufacturing units; there are two flats which operate as brothels; one day a car turned up, four guys with hammers jumped out and broke jaws and legs of two other kids ‘in retaliation’; from that day on we were officially only allowed to work in pairs around this housing block, which was great, because it meant less work for us; obviously shit for the kids who got the beating though; joyrides at 9 am in the morning, crashing the stolen car into one of our bin chambers; quite a few petty burglaries, mainly of council flats with thin entry doors, some guys getting away with a pensioner’s 20 quid DVD player; bullshit stuff, but nothing which would explain all this ASBO paranoia and policing.

Another funny thing was happening in two tower blocks, which are supposed to be demolished in one or two years time. There had been quite solid squatting efforts previous to the last demolitions in 2010. [7] My workmates who were working on the estate at the time said that the squatters were ‘good guys’, meaning that they did not cause too much extra hassle and they also expressed sympathy towards people making use of empty houses, legally or not. But EEH wanted to avoid a similar nuisance by bringing in ‘guardians’, meaning short-term tenants. The guardian company is called Dot Dot Dot. The tenancy agreements are highly casualised: you might live there for years, you might have to move out tomorrow. So a lot could be discussed about this effort not only to prevent people from squatting, but also to perforate ‘tenants rights’. In the case of Dot Dot Dot there is an additional layer, corresponding to EEH’s general approach of combining neoliberal policies with ‘local community governance’. From a letter to residents: “By agreement with EEH, Dot Dot Dot Property Guardians are placing carefully vetted people to live in flats in your block. […] This is to make sure that the flats remain secure, that there is no risks from squatters. […] Beyond this, all of our guardians commit to doing at least 16 hours a month of voluntary work for charitable purposes. We support and monitor our guardians to make sure they are having a positive social impact.”

Speaking a bit of Bangla I had hoped that it would be possible to see whether the ‘big housing estates’ in East London could turn into ‘concentrations of proletarian discontent’ against austerity. Neither I nor other comrades ‘intervened politically’ on the estate, through leaflets or through calling for meetings or anti-eviction phone trees. I handed out a leaflet for an upcoming anti-EDL march to kids, but the reception was pretty much: “This is our area, we will show them who rules here”, a turf position which was also encouraged by the leaflet which did not address the issue from a class perspective. In general I just kept my ears tuned and tried to be open towards conversations during my daily work, but I discovered few moments where residents got together or related to each other. The ‘community meetings’ were called for by the housing officer, which did not leave much space for a political agenda of resistance. One day a poster calling for a meeting to resist the bedroom tax caught my attention, but it turned out to be a Socialist Party front meeting and the first thing people (only two East End residents came, all others were political activists) were asked was whether they want to stand as TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition) candidates in the upcoming election, which was rather off-putting. Another attempt to tie the proletarian housing question to local governance. That doesn’t mean that nothing could be done on an estate level, the example of the nearby Carpenters Estate proves the opposite [8], it only means that there are no obvious signs of already existing collective structures or forms of resistance.

5) The conflicts

The austerity measures trickle down into the daily reality of workplaces. In our case there is a very slow but steady tightening of costs and slowly increasing pressure to work more. These were ‘attacks’ during 2013. Some things seem rather small, if not irrelevant. For example management handed out company tea flasks, which you can clip to your belt. It came together with the order that no one should walk all the way back to the break-room for an additional tea-break, which people used to take ‘unofficially’ at 10 am. We were supposed to drink our tea sitting in a staircase. The other announcement of a technological fix was that we are not supposed to call up the EEH repair hotline ourselves, because it cuts our effective manual working time. We are supposed to just report it to the team-leader – which was also rather bureaucratic. Management said that all caretakers might get a company phone upgrade, so that we can take pictures of the repair and email them directly. The team-leader immediately argued that we should then pressure management to pay us a higher pay scale, given that we would perform office work. I guess he was also worried about becoming increasingly redundant.

This was not an unreasonable fear. In early 2013 management announced that it would cut two team-leader positions and as a consequence to extend two areas for which the remaining team-leaders are responsible, which meant a higher workload for them. Since then, the higher-up management also increased their ‘visits’ on the estate in order to check on us. New rules were issued e.g. that no one should be seen smoking on the job, even when litter-picking outside. The issue of ‘abolishing temp work within EEH’ was firstly arbitrary, because only half the number of dismissed temps were replaced through new permanent workers. It also meant that we were supposed to work harder: In autumn EEH used to hire temps in order to keep on top of the leaves, this is now supposed to be done by the permanents alone. At the end of 2013 management announced that they might take on temps for the occasional weekend work, which only means that they won’t have to pay overtime bonus to the permanents.

Finally they announced in autumn 2013 that with the budget cuts in April 2014 EEH might actually have to reduce the number of permanent caretakers. So far they had prided themselves on not having to cut any ‘frontline staff’, but this holy cow is now supposed to go to the butchers. The threat is pending, the threat that everyone might have to re-apply for their jobs and that ten or fifteen years of ‘job history’ (quality marking, sick leave levels etc.) is ‘re-evaluated’ created considerable stress, in particular amongst the older team-members. Under this condition workers, during the negotiations of the collective contract in summer 2013, were also supposed to accept that after four years of a wage freeze for ‘local public sector workers’, wages will only increase by 1 per cent during the next three years, which means a further real wage decline.

Here we come to the question of whether there was any resistance or structures of possible resistance. During the first weeks on the job I did not ask whether ‘there is a trade union’. I wanted to see how recently hired workers get to know about the union. It took quite some time. I knew that officially half of the 550 or so EEH workers were members of Unison. During the first weeks only the ‘staff forum’ was presented or presented itself as a sort of workers’ representation. When the issue of the team-leader redundancy came up after three, four weeks into the job the team-leader said that the union reps now voiced their concern, but that they did not call anyone to do anything about it. He also said that whoever wanted to get a promotion during the time when EEH was still part of the council was to become a union rep. So the most active union guys amongst the manual workforce are team-leaders. In our team only the team-leader and the middle-aged West Ham fan are in the union. The workmate from Poland, who used to be in Solidarnosc, said that she used to be a member, but that 16 quid a month was not worth it and that the union did not back her when she needed it – some problem about sick leave. The union member of our team told me that he went on strike four times in his eleven years at EEH. All one day strikes, which to be honest, don’t make much of a difference in our job, you just litter-pick a bit more the following day. One time they struck over pay, at the time the team-leader (a different one) enforced the strike by taking away all keys from the caretakers the day before, also from the temp workers. During the one-day public sector strike over pensions in 2011 only two of the team went, they went over to another EEH estate to meet up with the team there, but there as well only two strikers.

After three months no one from the union had approached me, so I went as a non-member to the Unison meeting for caretakers. Out of 150 caretakers only ten came, two of us non-members. The East End Union rep also popped by, a Socialist Party / TUSC guy. He told us not to accept the 1 per cent wage offer and that Unison was asking for a ‘substantial wage increase’. He was not able to say what ‘substantial’ meant or what Unison would do in order to put pressure on. How are you supposed to convince the guys in your team to become first a member, pay about 180 quid a year union fees (which is about 1 per cent of your wage), if you cannot tell them what they will gain and how? Not surprisingly in the end the union accepted the 1 per cent wage ‘increase’. All this is not to say that ‘nothing can be done’, it just shows that even in the ‘public sector’ the trade union situation on the ground is rather miserable. In this regard it is most disingenuous that the very same Unison leader now agitates for the TUSC election campaign and its demands (a mayor on a workers wage, no cuts, 10 pounds minimum wage). As a trade union leader he sees the actual problems to put up enough pressure to break the wage freeze and he is not able to do anything about it, even in a highly organised company like EEH. He then propagates that casting an individual vote could compensate for that material weakness and enforce a 40 per cent increase of the minimum wage.

We had discussions amongst the few union members and also in our team about the ‘wage demand’, but although everyone agrees that the wage decline is awful, there is little hope that something can be done about it. During the time of negotiation EEH had their annual ‘company event’, a day when everyone comes together, is fed with fish and chips or curries and corporate propaganda about how great everything is. We had prepared a leaflet [9] about the wage demand to hand out, because it was the best chance to reach the otherwise very dispersed EEH workforce. In particular the manual workers liked the leaflet and kept it on the tables during the propaganda show, but ‘staff forum’ members, who are part of the event organising team went around and took the leaflets from people. No surprise. Realistically resistance will occur once jobs are at stake, but then it might be too late, in particular if the redundancy process is done through re-application. We will see…

6) The conclusion

After a year of working on the estate I thought that for practical organising from a class perspective the following political points were most pressing to debate:

* Rupture with the ‘community’

It became clear how necessary a political rupture with the ‘community’ is, which first of all requires an understanding of why it is a material necessity for individual working class people to integrate ‘into the community’. We don’t have to focus on arguing against ‘ethnic or national identities’ or religious beliefs, but rather address the material problems of working class members of a community and how they relate to the wider working class reality. For example anti-EDL leaflets will have to start from the pressing problems of the working class: competition on the labour and housing market; problems with the attempts to get into a position of advantage through nationalistic or other communal politics; necessity for a ‘community of struggle’ of a multi-national working class to have a realistic chance to resist the austerity regime.

* Alternative to the ‘Big Society’

EEH as a housing company of the local state addresses many aspects of ‘social reproduction’: the problems of elderly residents, of health, of education and employment. It organises that someone comes to your home and feeds you, if you need it. It becomes clear how one major aspect of legitimacy of the (local) state is the fact that it creates the necessary links between different aspects of life and between people performing tasks and people needing ‘help’. Once we accept that the back-bone of the state is our dependence on how it combines/co-ordinates the division of labour for social reproduction we can criticise a) how this is done (in a separating manner, where different aspects of life are managed by professionals of different departments, with all the awful consequences) and b) in whose interest it is done (how the austerity attack is managed as part of the ‘social services’, through the same channels and people we depend on). Working class resistance against austerity would have to find practical ways to relate to this material back-bone of the state, and not just operate on the level of ‘putting pressure on the political decision makers’.

* Demise of the political left

The East End is the stage for a double-demise of the populist left: a) with the communalism of the SWP/Respect in the mid-2000s and b) with the current attempt of integrating any anti-austerity resistance into the local election campaign of the TUSC. It seems that most ‘anti-cuts campaigns’, from anti-Atos protests to ‘Save the NHS’ mobilisations end up propping up electoral ambitions of various leftists. We see the usual political schizophrenia, e.g. an organiser of a recent ‘Save the NHS’ assembly in West-London admitted that the Labour councillor they invited onto the panel had agreed that all Labour council employees might potentially have to reapply for their jobs and accept worsening of conditions, but he defended the invitation of the politician who used the panel for his election circus by pointing out that the politician “did everything to stop hospital closures in his borough”. While it might seem easy to disregard this populism as attempts to mobilise the working-class into yet another dead-end, we have to ask ourselves how we can create working class organisms, which bring together proletarians who fight on different fronts. The populist left tries to do this through their ‘peoples’ assemblies’, and we know that they try to use them as electoral vehicles. But where is the alternative?

* Workers and proletarian residents

On the smallest scale we could have tried to combine the question of the wage freeze for public sector workers and the threat of job cuts for EEH workers with the issue of 5 per cent rent increase of EEH residents in 2014. This would have been a chance to explain not only our economic situation to residents, but also our ‘work reality’ with all its contradictions and strange relations towards the residents, which is normally only presented through the EEH channels. The same small step could be done (and is increasingly done) e.g. in the NHS, where the wage freeze for workers comes together with cuts in services. This would have to go beyond the trade union form of ‘public sector workers and service users’-alliance and start to question this division.


Footnotes: `