London and its migrants

How Mayor Khan could work with them to build a force for change

In the end it turned out to be something of a comfortable victory for the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, in the race to be Mayor of London.

imageOver one million people voting for the candidate who is the son of a Pakistani immigrant to the UK who worked as a bus driver. During the course of the election campaign Mr Khan was subjected to a barrage of criticism from his Conservative opponent with regard to his work as a human rights lawyer who has defended individuals accused of religious extremism in the past. His own convictions as a Muslim where equated with his professional work with the intention of creating the impression that his role as Mayor would present the capital city with security threats.

Londoners did well to reject the divisive tone of this campaign. Criticism from within the Conservative camp suggests that even centre right voters viewed the allegations with distaste and cast their ballot on the basis of social and economic considerations rather than concern about the ethnicity of the Labour candidate.

Elections to the 25 seats on the London Assembly confirmed the picture of a city which has found a way to live with its diversity. For the people who come out and vote the ethnicity of candidates do not appear to play a prominent role in deciding who to support and the division into political camps follows the left-right split that has been considered typical of UK politics. 70% of the vote went to either the Labour or Conservative candidates. The ‘insurgent’ populist vote was split between the left wing Green party and the right wing UKIP – the former with 8% and the latter 6.5% of the Assembly votes.

With the hope that the Conservatives learn their lesson, and back away from further attempts to mobilise ethnic sentiments, then the future appears to be bright for London administration will push ahead on the social and economic issues that are looming for the capital city.

The challenges

our voicesIf that is going to be the case then the challenge on how we can really push ahead presents itself most prominently, not for the professional politicians, but the grassroots associations representing the London communities that are having to contend with pinched wages, a major housing crisis, austerity-hit public services and growing inequalities.

With just over 3 million of London’s population of 8.4 million being made up of people born outside the UK there is an role for those organisations who are working to understand the special impacts that the city’s capacity to generate a sizeable degree of social injustice is having on migrant communities. Not all of their people who have crossed borders to come and live in London are poor or severely disadvantaged in other ways.

17% of people working in the City of London, where high-paid jobs in the financial services sector are concentrated, are from the countries of the European Union. Twenty-six percent of people working at doctor grade for the NHS also came from abroad.

But whilst we need to break the habit of thinking that migrant workers are the equivalent of poverty we do have to face up to the fact that the structure of the London jobs market working in tandem with the crisis in affordable accommodation is having a disproportionate impact on newcomers. Unless we come to terms with this and start to come up solutions the disadvantages suffered by the people who have moved across borders will be passed to their children and grand-children.

The linkages which certainly exist between ethnicity and poverty and have been investigated by a research programme led by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. But they should never be accepted as an inevitable fact of life. On the contrary, we need to sharpen our sense of what the factors are which trap far too many people in low wage jobs and exorbitantly expensive rented accommodation.

Alongside the glitz and the glamour of London as a 24-hour mega-city which provides services to the world is the fact that a large part of this rests on a huge workforce that is paid low wages with no job security, with many struggling to get by on limited-hours contracts dressed up as supposed self- employment.

Fairer rights for cleanersSectors like the hotels and restaurants in the hospitality industries, which a workforce which is 69% migrant, are also chronically low-paying. Social care, generating 200,000 jobs in London has staffing levels which are 40% migrant across the sector, but with most of these newcomers being concentrated in frequently low paid posts such as community support and outreach worker, care worker and senior care worker. But it is not just the fact of over-representation in low paid jobs that is the problem for migrants in London.

According to research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Housing, 75% of migrants are dependent on the private rented sector for accommodation. According to the monthly survey of rent levels carried out by the Mayor’s office, the median rent for a single room across London is £124 a week but raising to £150 and beyond in districts closer to the city centre.

UCL rent strikers say soon only wealthy will have enough money to study in London

A third factor is the cost of public transport. People in low paid jobs have to seek accommodation in the relatively few areas where they can begin to afford the rents. In London this is often a considerable distance from the places where workers have to go for jobs. Rents are also sensitive to the vicinity of amenities like local markets or local high streets which are well-provisioned with affordable moderately priced food and other essentials. Tackling these issues means that migrant household budgets in the capital city are placed under strain by the fares factor, with public transport taking a considerable proportion of daily wages of many migrant workers. The weekly trip to the shops for essentials, is more likely to have to be done in neighbourhoods that are bereft of supplies for food and other essentials.

Migrants as a change factor

Migrants are not alone inhomelessness facing problems of entrapment by these factors in conditions of relative economic deprivation. Indeed the archetypical poor person in London is most likely to be a native British person with very poor opportunities for well-paid employment or a migrant who arrived in the country at a much earlier period and has not been able to overcome the disadvantages from those days.

The more recent groups of migrants differ from the people they live amongst only in that they are likely to better educated, with 43% having some form of higher education, as opposed to 23% of the UK-born British. Though in theory well-placed to escape from poverty traps to pursue options for the well-paid jobs they are qualified for, in practice the perfect storm of life in a city where travel to work costs, high private sector rents and limited access to cheap food work to corrode the enterprise and initiative that is often present in migrant communities and ensure that they remain locked into poverty.

It is knowledge about the real-life dynamic of migrant arrival and settlement, and the factors that work to either facilitate moving on to a better standard of life or to stay trapped in what is effectively exploitation which the new Mayor of London most needs if he is to come up with plans for progress across the city.

The blueprint for a the sort of communities which act as springboards to better things are well- known and actually exist, fortuitously, in neighbourhoods which have for specific local reasons have been able to maintain a vibrant local life. The essential elements are:

  • Affordable accommodation, understood as rental costs that are on average no more than one-third of the median take-home wage for the district.
  • The availability of plentiful work opportunities within a travel distance of around 30 minutes from the core of the district.
  • A bustling high street, or even better, a street market, in the vicinity, made up of scores of business in competition with one another to keep prices down to attract customers.

Other factors play a role in supporting these springboard communities. Decent schools and facilities for young people to ensure that they have a positive engagement with the places they are growing up in; GP practices and clinics that work hard to keep the population in good health; parks and recreation facilities which bring the different generations in contact with one another in ways that provide support and solidarity.

Yet so much of the trends of social and economic life in London are working against these positive factors. Housing markets drive hardest in the direction of attaining higher prices in order to maximise equity. Jobs growth is taking place at its fastest rate in low wage sectors, providing least in the way of security and advancement. Public transports costs have risen inexorably over the past decade in line with the dogma that not only do current costs have to be covered, but also commuters have to pay for the failure of politicians in the past to invest in the maintenance and improvement of infrastructure.

A city of neighbourhoods

These are the reason why a great migrant city like London, which has been so good at opening its doors to newcomers in recent years, also exists today as a place which is most likely to trap the best educated and the most ambitious in some of the worst poverty and deprivation that exists in the UK today.

We suspect that Mayor Khan has a pretty good idea as to what both the strengths and weaknesses of the city he is going to govern for at least the next four years are. We hope that he realises that the solution to so many of its problems are not so much the ultra-business friendly stance he took during his election campaign, but much more importantly a community-friendly approach that will have to push back at the global market forces that are shaping the city at this time to give us all the space we need to grow and prosper.

When it comes to the question of who is going to be the Mayor’s amongst the best allies in bringing about the changes that are most needed be will be bold enough to acknowledge that many of these will come from those tens and hundreds of thousands of migrants, so many of them young, well- educated and desperate to escape from the exploitation that is rapidly over-taking their lives.

A Mayor of London who succeeds in getting the long-settled and the newcomers to work in harness with one another to rebuild London as a city of vital, cooperating neighbourhoods – that is the goal that ought to be set for the next decade of government across the capital.

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Make your vote count!

Polling_station_imageThe next London Mayor must speak up in support of the diversity and the rights of migrants in the city!

According to the figures provided by the Oxford University-based Migration Observatory London is home to around one-half of Britain’s migrant population.  Three million people out of a total of 8.4 million of its residents were born outside the UK.

You can love the capital city or you can hate it, but it is undeniably the case that London has much to teach us about how ethnically diverse groups of people are able to live and work together.

If the argument against immigration is that it lowers levels of trust between people and makes them less willing to share then an honest appraisal of what goes on in the boroughs and districts of the city provides plenty of evidence that contradict this assertion.  London furnishes us with studies that show that neighbourhood ethnic diversity in London is viewed positively as a factor making for greater, not less, social cohesion. *

In London people from all backgrounds work together in vital public services, such as the NHS and social care for the elderly.  Their children are educated alongside each other in schools which consistently perform at levels which are better than those in towns and cities with lower rates of ethnic diversity.

London inequality indexBut London also has a whole range of very large economic and social problems.  It is hugely unequal, with some of the poorest communities in Britain living alongside many of the very richest.  The market approach to providing for housing need which government of all stripes have favoured since the 1980s has failed disastrously and has created an impossible situation for young people in particular who are trying to find secure and affordable accommodation.

There is a constant danger that pressures of this sort will be blamed on the fact that London is so diverse, with migrants being held responsible for making things worse.  Strong leadership is needed across all the authorities, from London Mayor, the London Assembly, and all the borough councils, to refute claims of this sort whenever they arise.

It is also crucial that London is strong and united enough to challenge and resist the negative effect of legislation that comes from Westminster which will have an adverse effect on the diverse and multicultural character of the city.  London needs a local leadership that is prepared to do battle with national government whenever it goes down the blind alley of tougher laws that attack the cohesion that exists in neighbourhoods for the sole reason that some politicians think that this will be popular with sections of the electorate.

RaidsThe detrimental impact of such legislation is considered in a documentary film which MRN made together with researchers at the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (CMRB) at University of East London and other London-based migrant support organisations. ‘Everyday Borders’ has been viewed across the country and screenings are planned for London.

There is much to be said for what London has achieved in building strong local communities that are both ethnically diverse but also socially cohesive.  With a campaign to elect a new Mayor of London and a London Assembly underway we think that London residents should be pressing candidates from all the parties to set out a clear and precise plan on what they would do to maintain all that has been achieved in this city.

We need a Mayor and a London Assembly that will champion this city against proposals coming from the Westminster government in its most recent immigration legislation which will require more frequent identity checks and barriers to services for anyone born outside the UK.

Migrants Rights London has set up a tool which will help you lobby candidates to persuade them to play this role as champions for the rights of the three million Londoners who were born outside the UK.  Please click on the link and add your support by sending emails to the candidates for Mayor and the Assembly.

These will be an important few weeks for those who support the rights of migrants in the capital city.  We hope you will be inspired to speak out on what you feel should be done, and be prepared to set this out directly to the candidates and their parties. Join our London campaign.

* Sturgis, P., Brunton-Smith, I., Kuha, J., & Jackson, J. “Ethnic diversity, segregation and the social cohesion of neighbourhoods in London”. Ethnic and Racial Studies (14 Oct 2013).

For more on what our view of life in London is really like, see our video Migrants for London.

Read our report Migrant Capital – A perspective on contemporary migration in London