Gender balance seems to have been a serious issue for Hackney communes in 1972. I have previously posted a similar notice from the same year by a gay collective in nearby Abersham Road E8. The difference is that Abersham Rd notice explicitly mentioned “we are into smashing our male patriarchy” whereas this would not appear to be a concern for Roger (and/or “the gang”).
For me this speaks to a clash of subcultures – on the one hand the hedonist druggies of 86 Sandringham Road. On the other the hard-edged feminist political milieu that would host figures like the Angry Brigade, Astrid Proll and Dalston Men’s Group. The hedonist faction is less well documented, for obvious reasons… I’d love to speak to Roger and the gang about their time in Hackney if they are still around.
Sid Easton (1911-1991) was a Jewish cabbie, communist and trade unionist. The following is taken from his autobiographical tribute “The Life and Times of Sid Easton” edited by Graham Stevenson. This is available here (text) and here (pdf scan) and also includes a lot of material on the Transport and General Workers Union attempting to clamp down on communists in its Dalston branch.
At this time  l had an unpleasant tangle with the law, it was an event heavily tinged with anti-Semitism. I had a job carting finished dresses in my cab. I waited whilst they loaded up and then I took them where I was directed. I carried string and I used to put it in one side through an open window and take it out through the other side and tie it to the roof.
Then they would pile dresses on hangers from the string inside the cab. So much so that the guy who sat in the back of the cab was completely invisible to anyone who didn’t know he was in there.
On this job one day, I was going down Dalston Lane, a viciously anti-semitic area. Nowadays it is viciously racist against Bangla Deshis. The traffic lights were just turning red as I got to them, so I pulled up. I wasn’t conscious of cutting anyone up. l was in such a good mood, once I’d finished this job I was going home to have an early finish. All of a sudden, I got the feeling that someone was trying to come over to my nearside, but couldn”t do so as the kerb was in the way. I looked to see what was happening, when someone came over.
“I’ve a good mind to punch you in the fucking jaw for cutting me up,” he told me. I looked at him, “Look, mate ,” I replied. “I wasn’t aware that I cut anybody up. If I did, I’m sorry. But be careful how you go, don’t threaten me, because I’ve got a weak heart,” I checked him. “I’ll give you a weak heart,” he said and swung a punch at me. I opened the big half door of the cab and swung it out as he shaped up. He was forced to step back and so didn’t get anywhere near me. I thought I’d let him see how big I was, because I’ve a tendency when I’m driving to slump down a bit! So, I got out of the cab and said,”Now look, you’ve had two goes.Why don’t you get back into your cab..” (he was actually driving a lorry ) “..and when the lights change we’ll go. I’ve told you, I didn’t intend to cut you up. Whatever I did was done quite unconsciously. I’m sorry, but what else do you want? Blood?”
“You fucking Jew bastard,” he growled and slung one at me. He was a mug, because I could see it coming a million miles away. So I just stopped it and hit him myself. He hit the deck – he fell flat on his face. There he laid. It was unfortunate for me, because immediately I hit him, my arms were grabbed by two men. They turned out to be plain clothed policemen. They stood waiting for the lorry driver to get up, but l’d done too good a job on him and he remained unconscious. Leaving him on the floor they took me to the police station, riding the few yards on the side runners of the cab. My passenger was still in the back and all this time was hidden by the hanging dresses. Well, I didn’t say anything about him!
These policemen knew what they were about alright, they didn’t care that I was defending myself… it was Jew versus Gentile. In the charge room they prepared to do me for grievous bodily harm. One of them says, ”It’s a good job this wasn’t at night, because we’d have done you.” Meaning of course that they would have beat me up under cover of darkness. “Look, I’ll tell you something,” I replied. “If this had been at night the pair of you would have been on the floor and out. But I’ll let you away with it. If you feel like it, I’ll prove it to you.”
By this time a superior officer arrived and began questioning me. He sent the two policemen who had arrested me out for the body. The knocked out lorry driver had come round before the police could get back to the scene of the crime, although they did have a note of the number of the lorry. The driver nonetheless had pushed off without knowing what had happened. Whilst the passenger in my cab emerged from his hiding place and arrived at the station to confirm that I had been a victim not an assailant.
So they were unable to make the GBH charge stick and resorted to charging me only with assault.
As I was leaving the station, the two policemen who had arrested me started whistling “Deutschland Uber Alles” – remember this was 1941! I asked the policeman in charge if he knew what they were whistling and told him that they also had reckoned they would have beaten me up in the backyard if it had been night-time. I told him that they could do that as far as I was concemed, and lock the door, for there was only going to be one person knocking on the door, the other two would only be fit for burying. He said, “You’re loosing your temper.”
I replied, “What do you mean, “loosing my temper” -there’s a war on, didn’t you know! They’re whistling the enemy’s song and you’re talking to me about loosing my temper. I thought this was something you could be in prison for.” Eventually I had to leave the station, my customer was still anxious to deliver his dresses!
In court, both me and the lorry driver were bound over to keep the peace and had to pay a two shillings fine. The policeman who took the money off us said that we had both acted stupidly and that we ought to shake hands, but the other guy refused although I told the policeman that I didn’t want to fight in the first place. So the copper said, “If I turned round the other way, do you want to give him another one!” That was funny, but I said it was too easy and in any case it was no use banging somebody you didn’t really have to be afraid of.
“Sisters: There is a collective/Commune/Household, of gay people living in Hackney and we want some sisters to come and live with us. We are into smashing our male chauvenism and giving up our privileges as men over women. You do not have to be gay, just full of good energy and love, and if this society has fucked you up, maybe we will be able to work it out together. At the moment there are five men and we want about four more people….. please contact The People, 4 Abersham Road, Hackney, London, E8.”
A previous post highlighted that this show was in development and it finally airs this weekend with all episodes available on Iplayer.
That post also went into some detail about the real events that inspired the novel that the show is based on, including the role of the militant anti-fascist 62 Group in fighting fascists at Ridley Road in the 1960s.
I enjoyed Jo Bloom’s novel and am looking forward to the TV adaption. From the trailer it appears that the female lead plays more of a role in infiltrating the fascist group than in the novel, where she mainly worries about her square-jawed male lover doing that.
Few figures are so universally mocked as the male feminist. Dalston Mens Group seemed too good to be true when I chanced upon it. An almost perfect artefact of “right on Hackney”, like the satirically elitist “Stoke Newington Jazz Club” in The Mighty Boosh tv comedy series.
But Dalston Mens Group was a real and fascinating example of the plethora of radical organisations in the borough in the 1970s. Its oddness and the feelings of awkwardness it raised with me made it even more interesting.
Breaking through the cringe
Looking into the embarrassment people feel about male feminists is a scab worth picking. So here is a summary of what I reckon are the problems people have:
Earnestness. The idea that male feminists overstate the importance of their area of interest (and that it is better to not talk about it, probably). That it’s embarrassing and unmanly to be interested in feminism rather than traditional manly pursuits. Especially if it means that you veer into “feminine” territory, like expressing your feelings. And that all this is unattractive to “real” (i.e. not feminist) women anyway. Alongside this, there is a feeling that male feminism is an indulgence for middle class people who have too much time on their hands.
Virtue signalling/Insincerity. That basically male feminists are broadcasting their niceness for the benefit of feminist women as they think it will help them gain credibility and perhaps get laid. In doing this, male feminsts want to appear to be superior to “normal” men who are untainted by feminism. There is an overriding suspicion that male feminists don’t actually believe any of it. At its most extreme there is the idea that men are genetically predisposed to be bestial gropers and male feminists seek to deny this is the case.
Most people reading this have probably been irritated by people who are simply too “right on” to be enjoyable company. But many of us would also concede that occasionally being challenged on our behaviours and language has been a good opportunity for learning and reflection. So there is a balance to be struck.
All of the above has meant that I would probably call myself someone who was a supporter of feminism and women’s rights, rather than a feminist. It’s clear to me that the struggle for gender equality is real and ongoing, so we all need to play our part. And I try and do what I can, but I’m not some kind of super-enlightened mega-activist crusader or anything.
There is something in all of this about what masculinity is and what being “a real man” entails, which I have struggled with myself. As a straight cis man, I have taken pride on several occasions in the past with the suggestion that I was “not a real man” from various people (some of whom were probably well-meaning and some definitely not), but these days I’m less sure if that’s helpful.
Being a “real man” is as unattainable for most of us as being the sort of perfect embodiment of womanhood suggested by mainstream culture is for women. It’s probably better, in the short term, to radically expand the definition of what masculinity can be and so try to make it less important, rather than jettison it entirely (as suggested by John Stoltenberg in his provocative book Refusing To Be A Man: Essays On Social Justice (1989)). As well as supporting the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, obviously.
Alongside this inspiring upsurge of feminism there has been a regrouping of anti-feminism on the alt-right. The very online world of disaffected young men can be a recruiting ground for far right movements. The 2016 documentary The Red Pill (directed by Cassie Jaye) has been a lightning rod for some men’s grievances against what they see as feminism and the problems it has caused them.
The film makes a reasonably compelling case for the problems men face in western societies in the 21st century, but then blames these difficulties on the gains of the feminist movement. In fact many of the issues raised by the men in the film could be resolved by feminism.
For example men not being able to express their feelings does lead to mental health issues and a greater likelihood of death by suicide than in women. Feminism seeks to deconstruct the binary divide of macho men / feminine women, so that all human beings can express themselves sincerely and authentically.
And many of the issues men face could be solved by socialism. Men are more likely to die in workplace accidents than women – and the solution to this is a strong trade union movement rather than whining about feminists.
So men organising as men is both necessary and rife with all sorts of problems. And examining mens groups during previous waves of feminism might help us with unpick some of the issues of today. Or give us a laugh. Or maybe both of these things.
The origins of Dalston Mens Group
The British Library has a helpful audio interview with Dalston Mens’ Group founder Dave Phillips. It’s clear that the sort of reservations I have set out above were also present in the 1970s:
There was a men’s conference, which I didn’t go to, held somewhere I think in the Seven Sisters Road, it must have been about 1973 or ’74. So we were aware that there were these men’s groups starting up, but we were very suspicious of them, innate personal conservatism being one reason, but… [laughs].
What else? Subterranean homophobia, I don’t know, I mean the sense that these were kind of all a bit sissy and a bit sort of.. but then we were trying to sort of work out what the different kinds of strands around were, there seemed to be one strand around which was very much about trying to do something to assist the women’s movement. These were people who called themselves anti-sexist men.[…]
There were about ten of us all told. And we were trying to fit together a kind of, you know, our commitment to Trotskyist politics, as we thought it was, and feminism, and trying to fit our response to feminism.
Dave and several of the other founders were also members of the International Socialists (I.S.), one of the larger Trotskyist groups in the UK. (I.S. became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977). Dalston Mens Group was not an official I.S. group or front – indeed several comrades I’ve spoken to about this have expressed their surprise at this connection. For me, one of the most striking things in the texts of Dalston Mens Group is their openness about their doubts and insecure feelings – something that is anathema to the cast iron certainty of most Trot papers and groups. In fact I’d say that their attempts to organise without hierarchy and to combine the personal and political had more in common with some anarchist groups.
What does a Mens Group do?
Dave goes on to mention their activities:
All these groups in effect, with the benefit of hindsight, were quite limited in their effects, but they were into things like setting up crèches and looking after the kids while the women went to give out leaflets and stuff like that.
[…] there was another strand which was very much into personal exploration. The Brixton men’s group, were very into Reich and Gestalt therapy and stuff like that and were into exploring their own selves and were quite good, much better than we ever were, at being critical of each other, and exploring the kind of contradictions inside people’s personal positions.
There was a kind of position that we termed the guilt tripping, which was the kind of men who felt they were personally responsible for sexism, and were very into kind of trying to change themselves. So as we went on we became quite critical of that position, we felt you couldn’t really strip out sexism through an act of will, or self-development. They were people who were into developing a lifestyle, you know, a non-sexist kind of lifestyle, which took various forms, you know, a lot of sandal wearing and brown rice, nut rissoles and that sort of stuff.
The group apparently also published at least five issues of Mens News, which is how I came to find out about them. I’ve only managed to obtain one issue, which I have scanned and made available as a PDF here. (Leave a comment below if you have access to other issues or know where they can be found?)
The contents of Mens News are a mixed bag. “Dalstons Mens Group – A History” is reproduced in full below and covers the origins and anxieties of the group. There is more mention of the consciousness raising than the practical support given to the feminist movement.
“Ideals & Reality” contrasts socialist and mens groups and how the practice of both falls short of the theory. It has some, frankly, slightly dodgy passages like this one that veers towards “Nice Guy Syndrome”:
“I remember the parties I went to, the girls I lusted for, the impossibility of matching the charisma of [musician] Jet Harris, the unattainability of the women, who now 15 years on tell me that I exploited them, when I couldn’t get near them.”
“Sixteen Thoughts” is a political/theoretcial analysis of the history of feminism with some interesting conclusions about seventies culture (for example the “ham masculinity” punk rock and horror firlms). I thought these bits were good:
“Feminism shows us yawning holes in present day socialism’s ways of organising and lack of popular appeal and has a critical contribution to make to tjhe creation of a new revolutionary movement.
Mens groups are not inherently anti-sexist, it is all-male groups which administer most of capitalism.
The point finally is not a purely mental effort to abolish our sexual conditioning, but the abolition of the material relations which give rise to our condition.”
Dalston Mens Group – Sixteen Thoughts
There are also three articles on the difficulties of parenting in a nuclear family:
And finally an article on Islington Mens Group from 1974 which was allegedly “found in a disused squat”.
This probably all sounds quite dry, but there is self-deprecation in Mens News #5 as well as some amusing collages and graphics:
Menswear: male feminist style & fashion
“I think we all had long hair, but then, everybody in the 70s, almost everybody had long hair, I mean coal miners had long hair, everybody had long hair, footballers had long hair. There was one strand amongst men’s groups, I mean I seem to be centred on Wandsworth, who were trying to construct an androgynous lifestyle, which went as far as, you know, they removed their body hair and they waxed their chests, and [laughs]…
But remember, this was the period of glam rock and the glam period, so I can remember being in this men’s conference we organised. Well there we all were, we’d be wearing our kind of bell-bottomed baggy trousers, a lot of sandals. I think we were into nail varnish a bit. I used to have a toenail that was always a very, very, I don’t know what colour you’d call it, not turquoise exactly, but quite strikingly coloured toenail. Not too much, but you know, a real hint. [laughs] There was quite a lot of wearing of kind of ethnic neckwear and stuff like that about at that time.”
Dave Phillips – from an interview for The British Library
The back page (above) lists a number of kindred groups around England. As usual there is scant information about what happened to them, how they fizzled out etc. I think it’s reasonable to assume that some people drifted away and others got involved with other campaigns.
Perhaps traces of the 1970s mens groups can be seen in 1980s/90s organisations like Men Against Sexist Shit. I was also inspired by seeing large numbers of men supporting the 2019 Womens Strike rally in London with cooking, childcare etc.
In Their Own Words: Dalston Mens Group – A History (from Mens News #5 1977)
Our group really started in January 1976 out of a nucleus of 5 men, who had been meeting together for 3 months. We had only hazy ideas of why we wanted to be in a group, some of us had heard, or read about other mens groups or been to the early mens conference in London. We wanted to try and create the sense of community that many women seemed to have in the Womens Movement, and which we as men seemed to he lacking, lost in a world of ritual personal isolation. We had all been influenced by women in Womens Liberation and were very much aware of the personal limitations of ‘comradeship’ in most socialist groups.
The 8 of us in the group are involved or connected to socialist political groups, mostly to the Socialist Workers Party (or IS as it then was) and heavily involved in trade union branches at work plus the usual left campaigns. We know we are opposed to Reformism and Stalinism. But we don’t have a definite ‘line’ about personal politics, we are not trying to function as a mens’ cell inside political groups, or as an organised grouping inside the mens movement.
We do believe that part of the process of linking the personal and the political involves bringing together socialist politics and personal and sexual politics. That means, at this stage, straight Marxist men need to be a lot more emotionally honest with each other. We are critical of and get upset and depressed about the way left groups have traditionally resisted or opposed developments in personal politics, especially the Womens and the Gay Movements in recent years. But we also criticise those who reject left groups and socialist politics as one focus of an assertion of personal politics.
We have all recognised the impact of our experience as socialists and the role of the Womens Movement on our lives as men. In the group we have tried to bring these two strands in our lives together. We don’t claim we have had any conspicuous success at doing it – it’s not easily done and the two worlds of experience continually resist each other – but in the end that is at the centre of what we are aiming to do. It would be nice to produce a neat theoretical analysis of all the questions and issues that we’ve raised and discussed, but we’re still muddled.
As a mens group, we are not activists, we don’t go out into the world and do things around mens politics, nor are we a reading group, holding theoretical seminars. Consciousness-raising is the best way to describe our meetings. What we have discussed has always started from our own personal accounts of our experience. Through sharing our personal experience of sexuality we have tried to understand our experiences and to change the way in which we see the world in terms of how we relate to other men, women and kids. From our personal experience of lives and relationships, loves, problems, fears and hopes we’ve set out to connect what we have in common with the rest of our politics. This has been vary erratic – mainly, sometimes with great intensity, we have discovered each other in new ways and gained a lot of strength and support from being together and sharing our personal feelings with other men. This comes as a great relief after many years of ‘relating’ in traditional blokish ways.
Four of us have kids, one very recently. Three or us have been married at one lime, but all have split up from their wives, one recently while in the group. We are all straight with a spattering of gay experiences. And we’re all in the ‘educated middle class’ now, professionally employed… or unemployed, although we came from a much wider class background in the working and lower middle class with parents who wouldn’t have dreamt of going to college themselves. Which defines some important limitations about our group. We meet once a week for about two or four hours, with lapses and sometimes month-long breaks owing to problems of time, work and other commitments. We have mainly been a closed group, and there is no formal structure – it’s a leaderless group and though meetings usually have a main theme decided on at a previous meeting we don’t often keep to it. Sometimes we just start talking around what has been happening to us the previous week. Or wait till someone says something everyone else picks up on.
Most of us have known each other for some years – some of the relationships in the group go back over a decade! Surprisingly, this didn’t cause difficulties – in fact being in the group helped open up relationships which had got stuck in old grooves and being friends outside the group has helped us stay together as a group through times when we felt very unclear about our aims. When we can’t think of anything to talk about, or we are all tired or fed up, we can always just have a drink together. But the meeting provides the institutional framework in which we talk about mens politics and try to develop our political understanding of men and the male role. At times it is a very frustrating and stagnating process but by and large we go on feeling that we benefit from meeting and that it has changed us in the way we function with other women and men outside the group in the rest of our lives. Though often it is difficult to put your finger on some of these changes or to find words to describe them.
At first we talked about our selves – personal histories of what our childhoods were like, parents, schools, learning about fucking, our current sexual states and the way we were living. This helped us get to know each other and put everyone in the same positon – those who were new to the group as well as old mates. We went on to discuss a lot of topics that we variously thought were important adolescence, fucking, nuclear and multiple relationships, having children, work, jealousy, the women’s movements, sexuality and sex objects, male relationships, loneliness, collective living, drinking, pornography, fascism.
It is impossible to summarise what we discussed and learnt in all this. Usually we just learnt about each other’s ideas and experience. We hardly ever felt we got to the stage of working an issue right out so that we all ended up sharing a particular analysis or conclusion about something. Two themes did keep cropping up repeatedly – one was the importance of kids when you start thinking about almost any of these matters, how having them affects you totally and comes to influence your relationships and what you can give and take from them. Secondly, we talked a lot about monogamy and multiple relationships and their different problems in the context of seeking some sort of change from the limitations of nuclear set-ups, their closedupness and resistance to change. Multiple relationships in which most of us have been involved sometimes for several years and sometimes with women who are also with other men in the group have their own problems, to say the least.
These discussions, have not got us to a position of formulating any grand theories – in fact we’ve often felt bogged down and confused about where we are supposed to be going. We constantly discuss the nature of the group, whether it ought to exist and where we are at, usually in terms of whether the group should set out to be supportive or ideological or interventionist. We’ve tried to be supportive within the limits of our own personal psychologies and our experience, and we’d like to develop a clearer ideological grasp of ourselves.
Mainly, we’ve been led on to asking more questions about what we aim to get out of the experience. How do we get away from the pragmatism of our approach to issues in order to develop a socialist critique of men, masculinity, chauvinism and sexual oppression? How do we do this without losing a lot of what goes on in the group that is new and exploratory? What should be the relationship of men to feminism and the Womens Movement? How do we avoid colluding in our own forms of mystification? How do we get to be more critical of each other? How can mens issues be raised on a more general political basis — in trade unions and political groups? Unless we can begin to generate specific demands around the experience of being men in a sexist and capitalist society, for instance, demanding rights in our conditions of work that recognize men have relationships with their children, mens groups risk remaining small, inward-looking and irrelevant to the outside world.
For squatters this is a simple extension of the logic of turning empty buildings into homes. Here are people in a strange country with very simple and urgent needs: somewhere to live and something to eat. Here is a borough with a record for keeping properties empty and here are some activists willing to crack a few buildings. Simple.
82-90 Stoke Newington Road was a Magistrate’s Court from 1889. Barbara Windsor may have attended with Ronnie Kray when he was done for receiving stolen goods. The court would naturally be one arena where the oppression of working class residents of North London played out and it is gratifying to see that it was also a site of resistance to this:
The building is now St John’s Court (flats). As Alan Denney notes – a large “Police Court” sign was removed before the conversion, as presumably state-sadism is not a good selling point. St Johns Court is now a listed building. A one-bed flat can be rented there for £1,321 a month at the time of writing.
But… between the building being a court and becoming ‘luxury” flats, it was put to better use…
1996 was the last gasp of John Major’s Conservative government before New Labour were elected in the following year. On February 5th 1996 the Tories cut off benefits to asylum seekers who did not apply for asylum at the port of entry, and to those who lost their application but were awaiting an appeal.
Contrary to the bullshit spouted about asylum seekers “taking our jobs”, they were actually legally prevented from working. As London freesheet ContraFlow put it:
With no possibility to work legally, and now no way of getting any other money, increasing numbers will be left to starve, in the hope that they’ll return to wherever they had to flee from, unless we do something about it. Because of this situation, and the fact that the Refugee Council, who had money to open a hostel, hadn’t, a large squat was opened up in Hackney as an emergency shelter, and to highlight the situation, a squat called ARCH – Autonomous Refugee Centre Hackney.
The building was the old Magistrates Court in Stoke Newington Road, empty for years and with steel doors and windows but with an open window on the first floor that had been tempting the locals for ages.
According to anarchist magazine Black Flag, ARCH “was set up by local squatters, The Refugee Support Group from the Colin Roach Centre and others” and was supported by “local Kurdish and Turkish Groups, some churches and local shops”
Squatters’ magazine Squall interviewed some of the organisers:
Chris Locke of ARCH explains: “We wanted to provide homes for refugees affected by the Social Security changes. On the way we found lots of other stuff to do; ranging from getting decent solicitors for people to finding them clothes and food.” Warren, another member of ARCH, states the group’s intention to create alternative solutions: “We understand these people are alienated, some come from war zones and oppressive regimes to the big city. Providing bedding, conversation and a good meal is enough to give the basis of what they need; the dignity to keep their sanity and keep on living.”
ContraFlow went into more detail on the logistics:
The first mistake was going in before checking who owned it – it was assumed that as it was still for sale it still belonged to the state, which would’ve made it appropriate and make procedings predictable.
In fact it had been bought by Harinbrook Properties, a small property company connected to Eugena, a building outfit, who liked to pose as security guards, bailiffs and anything else. They tried three illegal evictions, which were foiled by physical force, with great assistance from the local Turkish and Kurdish community, and the cops. The cops only tried once to force their way in, but were eventually convinced that their legal position was rather dubious.
All this made the situation rather stressful and tiring, as 24-hour watches were kept until the owners finally decided to go to court.
After ARCH was evicted, Squall spoke to some of the people that needed its help:
Meanwhile in a Stoke Newington pub, two ARCH volunteers stroll in with a couple of young refugees; Varben from Kosovo in former Yugoslavia and Antonio from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.
Antonio, a doctor from Cabinda, tells his story: “I left because of the civil war. I was afraid I would be killed. I had many problems because I was treating people from all the different parties who are at war. Some parties didn’t like me helping all sides but I am a doctor, I must help anyone who needs it. They put me in prison for a long time. Then I escaped and came here.” Antonio had no idea he had to apply for asylum as soon as he arrived and is currently waiting for the Home Office to process his asylum application. On average this takes nine months.
Varben hitch-hiked to England in a lorry from Macedonia: “When I got to London I slept out on the streets at Victoria Station for three days. I met an African who told me to go to the Home Office.” Varben says there were at least ten other refugees sleeping at Victoria whilst he was there: “I don’t know what happened to them, they didn’t speak English.” The Refugee Council referred him to a hostel for five days and then on to a church. He believes that squatting is a logical solution: “Why have houses empty? Why have people sleeping in the church?” He is looking forward to an English course organised for him by ARCH and the Churches Refugee Network. He too awaits a Home Office decision.
The ARCH crew eventually squatted a house for refugees further north in Stoke Newington. I vaguely recall from a radical history walk a few years back that this was somewhere around Manor Road/Lordship Park?
Before that, there were some lessons learnt and some reflections to be had, as ContraFlow put it:
The second mistake was thinking that the problem of accomodation could be dealt with separately to all the other problems faced by refugees. It was assumed that other groups and networks would step in and take over all the social work stuff, but the first refugee showed that it wasn’t so easy, and that being in a strange country with a strange language makes it pretty damned hard to do anything for yourself, apart from whatever stresses and depression you might bring with.
Anyway, a few people found themselves taking on a whole lot of social work, and running around finding groups that might be able to help out. After three weeks the centre was evicted and plans to move on to a new place immediately were postponed to give time to work out what was actually needed next, and because the squat centre, where some of those involved lived and which was generally used as a base, was also being evicted.
But work continued, with a local church network and community groups, sorting out places for people to stay as well as working on other aspects of the struggle, and support for those refugees who found their way to the network.
The Refugee Council, who had been desperately calling for churches to make space available, stopped referring refugees to the church network because of their connection with ARCH, but the churches remained supportive, and a house was eventually opened up. which is now housing a number of refugees, and one non-refugee for support. Many contacts were made, and networks are being organised around London to try to open up houses and centres in other areas, but it isn’t easy.
One of the vague ideas behind ARCH was that it would take off and become autonomous, that space would be created for refugees to take up their own fight. It hasn’t happened yet. partly because of the low numbers involved so far, and because it will always be easier for activists, who will always have to be around, to give support. The skills are out there, to find and provide what’s needed, if we can bring them together.
This isn’t just another benefit attack to be tagged on to our fight against the JSA. It’s not just another attack on housing adding to homelessness. It’s an attack on the ability of ordinary people like us to escape unbearable conditions created by the global (but still hierarchical) squeeze on our conditions, by local states’ attacks on behalf of global, asylum seeking capital. If money is going to zap around the world looking for cheaper labour and better investments, it can’t allow us to wander off looking for higher wages and better conditions. At best we’ll be allowed to be guestworkers, with our families and the costs of reproduction left behind, and with no rights to settle, organise.
This is an attack on London and its beautiful cosmopolitan mix of cultures and people, an attack on the communities here and on our history of refuge and struggle. In a way it’s a last chance for us to act locally and globally at the same time, to carry out direct actions that make us part of the world instead of just acting against increasingly localised political structures, with occasional solidarity actions to protest at the nastiness of other states. It is also a chance for us (the vast majority of ContraFlow readers, and writers) to break of our ghetto of our European “alternative” scene, and discover the world that is collected together in our cities.
For me ARCH is an inspiring example of practical solidarity being provided to those most in need by people with scant resources. For all its problems, this was direct action at its best. Since 1996 the pace of gentrification in Hackney has accelerated to the point where there are very few empty properties and this increase in value has been reflected in some changes to the law on squatting too. Nevertheless squatting is still happening, but generally in a less open manner. The veterans at the Advisory Service for Squatters are still doing a excellent work in difficult circumstances.
The support mechanism for migrants in the borough have been professionalised and there are obvious advantages to that, although I am sure that the constant worries about funding and simply not having the resources to do what needs to be done must be very stressful: Hackney Migrant Centre is seeking donations and volunteers.
Police violence against Hackney’s afro-Caribbean community in the 1980s and 1990s is a matter of historical fact, but of course the cops’ racism and criminality didn’t end there…
In 1989 over 4,500 refugees had come to Hackney fleeing the war in Kurdistan. They joined another twenty to thirty thousand Turkish-speaking workers in east London. Almost none of these workers were unionised and no major union had thought to change this. For example, none had ever appointed a Turkish speaking official. But some of these refugees had brought revolutionary traditions from the cities and villages of Turkey and Kurdistan – and they arrived in Hackney at a point where a lot of people were open to political struggle and solidarity.
The 1991 census figures showed that 10,500 people in Hackney worked in manufacturing (as opposed to 12,000 manufacturing jobs solely in the clothing industry in 1981 – and just 3,000 in manufacturing in total in 2019). Many of these jobs were in the textile sweatshops which were dotted around the borough. (See our previous post on working conditions in these for women in the early 1980s)
1989: Protests Against Deportations
On Monday, February 27 1989, the police raided a number of factories in Hackney and arrested 38 Kurdish and Turkish workers. By the next day, seven had been deported and a further fourteen were under threat. This action came in the wake of a wave of raids across North and East London.
The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) clothing branch alongside community and political groups organised immediate protest action: a mass picket of Dalston police station on March 4th. This was followed by a 3,000 strong march the next day and an International Women’s Day march through Hackney under the slogans ‘No Worker is Illegal’, ‘Right to Settle, Right to Work’, ‘No More Deportations’ and ‘No to Police Raids’.
Hackney Union News reported at the time:
Factory bosses have used this background [of anti-immigrant sentiment and police harassment] to intensify exploitation. They have been met by increasing struggles over the right to organise in trade unions, and over wages and conditions.
These struggles have led to the formation of the North and East London TGWU textile branch no. 1/1312. The branch will require committed support from the TGWU against the attacks it will face, including trade unionists being shopped to immigration authorities by employers, and in the battles that lie ahead over recognition.
Hackney Union News May/June 1989
1/1312 branch was formed at the initiative of the political organisation, the Union of Turkish Workers, with the assistance of Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and Service Workers Advisory Project (SWAAP). One year later, it had recruited almost 600 workers locally…
1990: Bacton Fashions strike
Bacton Fashions in Someford Grove, Dalston, was a relatively large clothing sweatshop employing up to 90 workers. It was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work.
Most of Bactons workers were Turkish or Kurdish, had been living in Britain for less than a couple of years and were waiting for a Home Office decision on their rights to remain in the UK. Within the factory there were some members of TGWU’s new 1/1312 textile workers branch.
A series of small-scale strikes had led to a union recognition agreement being signed at Dizzi Limited in nearby Well Street. There were regular leafleting sessions of factories and meetings on workers’ rights at community centres.
The workers at Bacton Fashions had many complaints about low pay, long hours, terrible health and safety conditions, no holiday or sick pay, victimisation, continuous lay-offs without pay and a management prepared to act dictatorially.
When eight workers at Bacton Fashions refused to accept being ‘laid off’ they began picketing. Appeals to other workers to respect their picket line were met sympathetically, but little else. The employer, Mustafa Dill, was sufficiently embarrassed to re-employ the workers and to agree to lay off pay during slack periods. However, he kept breaking his word and there were almost daily walkouts over the next few weeks, as agreements were reached then broken once again.
During a longer strike, it became traditional at the end of the working day for workers from all the firms in the industrial unit to join with the strikers and jeer and handclap the boss and his managerial team as they left work. There was no violence, although tensions were clearly running high and up to 400 people were involved in this daily humiliation of the boss and managers.
The TGWU itself was unhelpful.
On February 26th 1990 the evening picket of about 100 people was attacked by the paramilitary Territorial Support Group of the Metropolitan Police. There was a fierce fight, during which the police were initially chased from the scene, before re-grouping and attacking the pickets and their supporters.
Four pickets (all Kurdish refugees) were arrested and charged with riotous behaviour and actual bodily harm. They faced possible deportation if convicted.
Around 150 people picketed Dalston police station until 5am in the morning.
Only ten people crossed the picket line the next day, forcing Bactons to close.
A campaign to defend “The Bacton 4” was launched at a demo of 400 on April 7th. The campaign helped to secure ‘not guilty’ court verdicts for all four arrestees when their case came to trial in October 1990. It emerged that Special Branch had visited Bactons and showed the security guard photographs of recent demonstrations in London against a visit of Turkish leader General Evren – these photos apparently originated at the Turkish Embassy.
One striker later received a five figure sum in damages for what had happened to him during the police assault.
Bactons was eventually forced to close permanently, only to re-open under a different name and at a different location later. Picketing and a refusal by workers to work there led to its closure again.
As Mark Metcalf of the Colin Roach Centre put it:
While the workers lost their poorly paid jobs they achieved a degree of success showing the employers that they could not do everything they wanted and needed to take the workers needs into account when making decisions. The workers established a pride in fighting back; they closed down the factory and demonstrated they had the power to not only damage the employers’ profits but get rid of it!
1991: Solidarity Strike
On January 3rd 1991 over 2,500 London textile workers took solidarity action with their fellow workers on general strike in Turkey on the same day.
As Socialist Organiser reported:
“Factories in Shacklewell Lane, Somerford Grove, Victorian Grove, Tyssen Street, Tudor Grove and Arcola Street were virtually empty as workers refused to cross picket lines.
At 1.15pm, four vans were driven at speeds of over 70mph to the Halkevi community centre on Stoke Newington High St, and officers jumped from the vehicles to race into a crowd of around 120. Five people were grabbed and when friends tried to stop their arrests, around 20 police officers drew their truncheons and batoned people to the ground, arresting them as they fell. One woman meanwhile went to St Barts hospital with a broken leg.
At 2pm a crowd of 150 went to protest outside Stoke Newington police station and when in protest 30 sat down, on the other side of the road to the station, the police paramilitaries of the Bow TSG rushed across the road and violently arrested dozens of people. Others fled, but were pursued by the police in all directions.
Many people were arrested with the police paying special attention to those with cameras, and one young Kurdish man was rugby tackled to the ground, beaten, and his camera taken away.
62 people were arrested with four being taken by the police to Homerton hospital. Access to the casualty department was denied by police at the entrance.
At 6.30pm over 300 people, mainly Turkish and Kurdish, returned to Stoke Newington police station and remained outside singing and dancing until their friends were released. 29 people have been charged with a serious public order offence.
Many were beaten whilst in police custody. The arrestees were helped by Hackney Community Defence Association, which noted several incidents of TSG violence in Hackney the Summer 1991 issue of its newsletter Community Defence. HCDA characterised the January 3rd arrests as revenge for the confrontations at Bactons – and a raid on a gig at Chats Palace as revenge for the Hackney poll tax riot in March 1990:
The facts speak for themselves. TSG officers have an image of themselves as an elite force, and they behave as if answerable to nobody but themselves. There is a certain inevitability that wherever they go, trouble is sure to follow.
Two of the arrestees, Haci Bozkurt and Baki Ates, both 34 and from Stoke Newington, received a great deal of press coverage when their cases eventually came to trial five years later. Both had been granted political asylum after fleeing Turkey to escape police violence and persecution:
“The court was told that in January 1991 the men had been part of a group outside a community centre in Stoke Newington. They had gone to the centre to get news of the general strike then taking place in Turkey. Police were dispersing the crowd when disorder broke out.
Mr Bozkurt asked why a young man was being violently arrested, the court heard. He was then kicked and punched and dragged into a police van. Mr Ates complained about Mr Bozkurt’s treatment and he was grabbed and punched in the eye by PC Michael Fitzpatrick, the jury was told. “It felt like my eye exploded,” he said. He too was put in the van, where he was assaulted again. Both were handcuffed. Mr Bozkurt was also punched by PC Fitzpatrick, tlie court heard, and his nose was fractured. He received multiple injuries, Police said that he had fallen flat on the pavement during the fracas.
Both men were taken to Stoke Newington police station and were eventually seen by doctors. They were sent to hospital, where Mr Ates was found to have suffered a lacerated eyebrow and severe bruising to his eye, which was described by the doctor as a classic boxing injury.
The two men were charged with violent disorder. At Highbury Corner magistrates court in May 1991 no evidence was offered against Mr Bozkurt. Mr Ates was acquitted.”
Guardian Weekly June 23rd 1996
The jury found that the men had suffered false imprisonment, wrongful arrest and assault. Both were awarded £55,000 exemplary damages. Mr Ates received an additional £22,000 compensation and Mr Bozkurt £18,250. A total payout of just over £150,000.
Their counsel, Ben Emmerson, remarked:
“This country should have been a safe haven, but they were arbitrarily arrested, beaten and injured and then prosecuted on trumped-up charges”. Predictably, no disciplinary action has been taken against any of the officers involved and they remain on duty.”
Guardian 14.6.96. Quoted in Statewatch
With thanks to Neil Transpontine and Mark Metcalf.
The wider pattern of police criminality and corruption at Stoke Newington Police Station in the 1990s – and the campaign against it – is covered in our pages about Hackney Community Defence Association.
A Hackney Communist Party investigation into the conditions of women working in the local clothing industry.
It includes many quotes from women about their hard work, struggles for decent wages, juggling childcare and even some interesting observations on home working that might be more relevant to many of us now. Online sources suggest a publication date of either 1981 or 1983.
Inside Out is in the tradition of the two essential Working Lives books publishd by Centerprise in the 1970s. The first of these covered work in Hackney from 1905-45, the second 1945-1977.
There has been a huge decline in the number of manufacturing jobs in Hackney since the 1980s. (An estimated 3,000 jobs in total as of 2019 vs 12,000 jobs in the clothes industry when Inside Out was published). I would highly recommend the Angry Workers of the World collective’s recent book Class Power On Zero Hours for a recent investigation into the working conditions in warehouses and factories in West London.
Women In The Rag Trade: Inside Out By Hackney Communist Party Womens Group
Walk along Dalston Lane, up Ashwin Street, and throug to Ridley Road, heading towards Shacklewell Lane. It’s not far – it might take you 20 minutes. Signboards everywhere, Denelight, Mindy, Rimplan, Palenstar, Multimodes and dozens of others. Small factories, crammed into basements, behind shop fronts, on one floor of a half empty warehouse, in someone’s back room.
Some recently boarded up or left semi-derelict, premises for sale or to let. All are clothing factories. It could be anywhere in Hackney, for clothing is the most important manufacturing industry, employing over 12,000 people locally. And most of those workers are women.
This is the story of those women, told partly in their own words and partly through the few facts and figures available. It’s by no means a complete account. The issues are those most often commented on when discussing women’s employment – what jobs women do, wages, equal pay and job security, health, childcare, home-working and union membership. The experiences and information about Hackney gathered here will, we hope, be useful; we didn’t always find what we expected. And if it helps to ilustrate the need for basic changes in our society, so much the better.
Hackney has always been an important area for clothing. Until recently, much of the work was Outerwear – tailored suits and coats for the high quality ready-to-wear market. Factories were large, employing over 1000 people, mainly men.
But most of these factories have gone, taking advantages of grants to move out to the suburbs or Development Areas, or closed altogether, victims of the changing market in menswear from bespoke tailoring to casual clothes. But that wasn’t the end of the industry; small workshops, sweatshops, sprung up to take their place, employing women and immigrant workers.
“Ours is a small factory, about 22 on the machining floor, It’s owned by two sons and their mother — she’s dead now, It used to be a family factory, some of the women are 60 and 70 years old. Now younger people, Turks, are coming into the trade”.
Almost all of these factories make women’s clothing – either high quality outerwaer (costume and mantle in th trade) or cheap dresses and light clothing.
A few Hackney factories sell direct to shops, but many operate as outworkers for major companies – Windsmoor, Marks and Spencers, Burberry’s.
“We make coats and jackets for C&A, Top Shop, Littlewoods, British Home Stores. We do mail order as well”.
It’s convenient for the major companies. They do the designing, make the patterns, undertake marketing – someone else has to cope with changes in fashion, lay-off workers, have machines idle, train new workers, keep up-to-date with new equipment. And small factories find it difficult to raise investment – an automatic basting machine with variable temperature controls for synthetic fibres costs anything from £40, 000.
To avoid these problems, manufacturers employ home-workers to do part-work, usually seaming, sleeves, linings. They cost the employer nothing in heating, lighting and National Insurance, they have no security of contract, and many work for lower rates.
It’s the outworkers and homeworkers who are suffering most in the current recession. As living standards fall, people have less money to spend on clothes. A 20% rate of inflation, plus 15% V.A.T. has made garments expensive. Also imports are cheaper, not just from Third World countries, but also from Europe, particularly West Germany and Finland where investment in automation is high. And with British companies dependent on overdrafts, high interest charges hit hard. Over 3000 recorded redundancies in London alone between November 1979 and March 1980. Thousands more are on short time.
Factories in Hackney haven’t escaped. After 62 years of making high quality suits and coats for the West End, including Harrods, Mono’s in Shoreditch shut in December 1979.
“I don’t know why we’re closing really; he says it’s because of high costs, the clothes are too expensive and they can’t sell everything we make.”
Homeworkers have also been affected.
“I know lots of people who have lost work. One day the man says ‘there’s no more’. It’s very difficult for them.”
No-one sees a bright future for the industry in the months ahead.
Jobs for the Girls
Walk into any clothing factory and you’re immediately struck by the lack of automation, the importance of the skills of cutters and machinists, the large number of people in so small a space. The work is highly specialised.
“I do lining, I sew the linings in the coats and suits, I’ve more or less always done that job.”
“Piecing up means making up the sleeves and belts.”
“I’m a special machinist — buttons, button-holes, felling, overlocking, all those.sort of things.”
“As a top machinist, it means you can do any part of the garment, you can make the complete garment out.”
“I’m a finisher, it’s the last thing done by hand. I won’t work the machines, they’re too big and dangerous, so I won’t go near them.”
Almost all the jobs are done by women. Men tend to do particular jobs like cutting and pressing, but the women we spoke to didn’t feel that these were the better jobs.
“They do the same as women, they work on the machines; but men don’t do the job I do, finishing.”
“There are three boys, the governor’s son a and another man, all the cutters are men. No women has ever asked to do cutting.”
Moving to a new section of work isn’t easy. Most factories have no formal training, either for newcomers or those wanting more skills. Evening classes stopped many years ago. The Clothing and Allied Industries Training Board have schemes around the country, but employers in London aren’t interested.
When trade is good, they can poach by offering higher wages; now, they lay off the least skilled, and drop the rate.
Because training is a problem, it’s been difficult to recruit young people; many of the women have been in the trade a long time.
“Well, I did a five-year apprenticeship —but now you come in and if you can use a machine, a few weeks tuition and if you’re in any way quick you pick it up.”
“When I went into the trade, I’m going back a few many years now, we used to work with experienced persons, we’d have the whole bundle and do it right out, but now it’s different, now you go as a section worker.”
With no set criteria for defining different grades of work, moving up a grade is often a question of luck and nerve:
“I went to Shoreditch and got more money because I had the cheek to say I was experienced, Some places give you a trial, but I was lucky. If I didn’t know how to do something I would ask – I’d say ‘you do it differently in this factory’ – then they’d show you, But you had to be quick, or they’ll throw you out. That’s how I became a top machinist.”
As factories close down, getting another job appears to raise few fears for some:
“This is my first trade; when I get fed up with it I just go off and do dif ferent things. I’ve worked in a cigarette factory, spirit factory, tea factory, it makes no dif ference really, it’s only the money that matters.”
“I haven’t looked for anything yet because you can’t start until you finish here; I’ve never had any problems. I might look for something different, but this is all I know.”
But for others, another job isn’t so easy:
“Because I’m older, there’s not much, cleaning, tea lady. There’s not many opportunities from where I live.” (Haringey)
“It’s a shame this place is closing down, It was convenient, local and the hours more or less flexi. Conditions were good compared to some places.”
Not Pin Money… but Peanuts!
Wages in the clothing industry have always been low. From the beginning of this century attempts have been made to regulate pay through the Wages Council Agreements. The minimum rate for 79/80 for working a 40 hour week was set at 105p. per hour.
Outside London, many workers are at or even below this legal minimum. In Hackney, the shortage of skilled labour has pushed up the rate, although home-workers and those working in very small sweat shops often get less. Average rates quoted were £1.60 to £2.00 per hour: pay for a full-time machinist of £55. to £60 per week. Cutters (men’s jobs) were more likely to earn £100 a week.
But comparing rates in the industry is difficult. Machinists, examiners, passers and fixers are usually on piece-rate; others are on time-rate – final examining examining, quality control, cutters. But many machinists also work time-rate.
How much you earn is a secret. In one factory no two machinists will necessarily be earning the same.
“Everyone gets what they have individually arranged between themselves and the governor, and he tells you to keep it to yourself.”
“Everyone is paid a different amount, it depends on your ability. You set your own price. I came here as a top machinist so therefore I negotiate what I think I’m worth. I know what the going rate is but if you think you deserve something better you go ahead and ask,
Often, especially in the smallest places, work is ‘off the book’. No record of payment is made by the employer who gives cash-in-hand. If you’re earning less than £55 a week, paying tax and National Insurance isn’t very attractive. But getting more money can be hazardous.
“My friend, one day I saw the boss come up and give her £5. I asked her what for and she said she’d been to see him to get more money, but she didn’t want it on her slip. So every week he gives it to her in her hand, But now he’s forgetting and she has to keep asking – she doesn’t like it.”
Many women in Hackney don’t work a full 40 hour week. Part-time hours vary, but somewhere between 26 and 35 hours is common. So few women earn more than £50 a week. And part-time rates don’t appear to be covered by the Equal Pay Act. At least that’s what the women workers at Mono’s found when they went to the Equal Pay Tribunal.
“The Tribunal, there was no-one on the bench who knew anything about this trade. They didn’t know what we were talking about, facings, piecing up and such.”
“We picked out who we thought was earning more, we had to put our names down against as many as we felt were earning more than us. Some women picked out men who were only earning a penny more. Two women went to the Tribunal and found they were earning more than the men. We looked fools. The men wouldn’t tell us beforehand. The Union should be entitled to ask.”
“One case, she was working in a set with men, whilst we were working in sets with all women. They put her with the highest paid man she was working with.”
“We lost the Appeal on part-time. He (the boss) said the women were privileged to be able to work part-time. At that time I didn’t know he had two men working upstairs part-time.”
“The Chairman, he said he had a part-time secretary and there were times when he needed her and she wasn’t there. But it’s not the same, when you’re not sitting at the machine, someone else is – you expect the same hourly rate. After all, I work 26 hours a week, and come every day. I still have the same fares as full-time workers, over £1 a day. It’s about time people got travel allowances off their tax.”
“We went up first and then he (the boss) went up afterwards so he’could say what he liked and you couldn’t say – ‘well, that’s not true’ “.
“One woman here on tailoring, if anything goes wrong with the work, a little hole, she can invisible mend which none of the men can. The boss said the man was paid more because as well as being a tailor he booked in the work. But all he had todo was to write a number on a bit of paper and hang the work up. That’s all he had to do. But the woman lost because he spoke as though that man had big books to look after. We didn’t get a chance to challenge that.”
“The Tribunal’s put there to make you feel, well, they’re trying, but they’re not really.”
So even when payment is by the hour, the Tribunal ruled that an equal hourly rate only applies if you work 40 hours a week. It’s not surprising that employers willingly take part-time workers. For many many women, this is one of the attractions of clothing
“I work 9.30 to 3.30 because you can’t leave the kids to go to school, they’d never go.”
“I leave at 8.30 from Woolwich Arsenal and get here about 9.30, they’re quite good about that.”
For full-time workers the day can be long. Half the women who work in Hackney don’t live in the Borough; clothing is no exception.
“I work 8.30 to 4.40, it takes me about one and a half hours to get here by tube and bus.”
“Some of the old women work part-time. But I work 8am to 5pm.”
Holiday entitlements are negotiated by the Union and incorporated into the Wages Council Agreements. But in many of the smaller factories, getting holidays with pay can be a problem, especially if you’re working part-time. But here again, if you’ve got skills, employers can appear generous:
“I think I can have three weeks paid, but we go go to see our family in Spain so I say how much I want and I can go. Unpaid of course. Some factories won’t let you do that, they even say when you can go.”
On the inside
…It’s lunchtime, half an hour to eat your sandwiches, have a cup of tea, and get on with a bit of your own work. You’ll have to eat at the bench, between the machines, scissors, threads, half-made garments. If you’re lucky you can make a cup of tea in the kitchen, partitioned off in the corner. Feel a bit off-colour, well sorry but there’s nowhere for you to lie down…….
Something out of the last century? No, just the average clothing factory.
“Our new factory, its got no rest room or canteen, just a little kitchen to make tea. All I know, when they built it new, an inspector came.”
There are all sorts of hidden hazards around. Open any copy of the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Journal for the compensation awarded for industrial injuries – Mrs ——— N.E. London, £313.05. She’d tripped down the stairs at work and broken her ankle, because there were no lights. A more serious accident might bring £1000.
But many health complaints just aren’t recognised ag resulting from working conditions, or else are put down to carelessness.
“I have glasses for working now — but it’s difficult to say it’s because of the work, it could be my age.”
Clothing factories are notorious fire hazards – old buildings, narrow staircases, faulty wiring, hot presses, synthetic fibres, corridors blocked with racks of clothes and cardboard boxes
“The factory where I work was burnt down a few months ago, a fault in the wiring I think. Luckily it was a night. Now it’s quite new. I don’t know if there are any safety regulations, even since the fire we haven’t had a fire practice.”
None of the women we spoke to could ever remember having instructions about accidents or fire. They’d just get out as best they could. Yet Health and Safety is the employer’s responsibility and fire drills are compulsory under the Health and Safety at Work Act. But with few inspectors, enforcement of this and other requirements is almost impossible.
What about the Children?
Paid work is only one of the jobs women do, there’s also the family to look after.
“I work part-time because even when they work, they’re still your responsibility – they still expect something to eat when they come home from work.”
The majority of women we spoke to were either without children or had grown-up children.
“I’ve two big girls, one’s working and the other’s at school, so I don’t worry about them.”
Working in clothing is difficult for those with younger children and childcare is a constant anxiety.
“I leave them with my mum, but I worry if she gets sick or something. I have to take time off. No, the boss doesn’t mind.”
One alternative to ‘mum’ is a childminder. Hackney is better off than some parts of London for registered childminders, but it’s still not enough, and can be expensive. £12 a week is the rate for looking after a child through Hackney Association of Childminders, not much for working maybe 50 hours a week. But it canstill be too much when your own pay is less than £50.
Many women don’t like leaving their children with childminders, especially if they’re not registered. Often there’s very little space or things to play with, too many children for one pair of hands. But there aren’t many places available in nurseries either.
The most recent data published (a GLC report for March 1975, although probably little has changed since then), showed that for every 1000 children under five in Hackney, there were only 23 nursery places available. It’s better to live in Camden or Islington, which have 85 places and 51 places respectively for every 1000 pre-school children. Yet despite the desparate need, three new nurseries built in Hackney are likely to remain closed.
Home Sweet Home
“I worked at home because of the children. I wanted to be there when they came back from school, not give them a key round their neck.”
“Before I had the children I worked in a shirt factory. But after, it was very expensive to have them looked after. My mother used to look after my daughter but she didn’t want to any more.”
By working in their own homes, women combine paid work and housework. But it isn’t easy when you’re at everyone’s beck and call:
“I’d like to’go back to the factory – maybe I’d get more money because here I’m always doing things, helping people and my work is always behind. My governor doesn’t send me work because of that.”
Children need attention too.
“It’s very hard with the children about. My little girl, she wasn’t used to the machine and when I started she used to go mad — she hated it. They get jealous and want to be picked up all the time.”
“I don’t da much when the children are at home, maybe when they’re on holiday I do about 6 hours work a day. When they’re at school I do more,”
Providing nursery facilities and after-school care would help many homeworkers – but not all.
“Nursery places would be a good idea, but our people wouldn’t like it.”
Looking after your own children isn’t the only pressure forcing ethnic minority women to work at home. Not speaking the language properly, being isolated in a strange factory, it’s a frightening prospect. At home friends can come and chat while you work.
“My friend, I’m teaching her to sew. If she wants she comes here and helps me finish the garments.”
But since most homeworkers arrange their work over the telephone, understanding the language is still important.
“I agree the price with the governor, You have to phone him up. I think he has a two-floor factory, but I’ve only been there once.”
Initial contact with the governor may be made through friends or relatives. After that, the work arrives at the door.
“The man brings the work in a van, He comes regularly every day, but I only take it three days, because I can’t finish it.”
Delivering and collecting the work is often sub-contracted out by the factory. So it’s even more difficult for a home-worker to make contact with her real employer.
In law, homeworkers are sometimes classed as employees and have some legal protections. But most are casual workers, treated by the factory as self-employed. So the governor avoids paying National Insurance or redundancy pay, and can stop supplying work at a moment’s notice.
By accepting this, homeworkers avoid paying tax and insurance too. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth working at all. But it means the governor can threaten to report you if you don’t accept his terms.
However,. regardless of the type of contract between the factory and the homeworker, Wages Council Minimum rates of pay should be offered. And from May 1980, the agreement includes holiday pay – for 80/81 this should be 5% of annual earnings, going up to 10% the following year.
Actual rates vary widely and are often well below the legal minimum. How much you get depends on how well you know the industry. .
“The work I’m doing is very cheap. Some skirts are alright, you get 50p and there’s plenty of work in them – in fact I get more than if they’re made in the factory —- but others are only 20p, if there’s not much to them.”
“If I do good work, maybe I get £70 a week, but but last week I got £30,”
The same skirt costs £8 or £9 down Oxford Street. And a £35 jacket may have cost just £1.50 to machine. Set against earnings are the costs of making the garment, most of which are paid by the homeworker.
“I bought the machine. They are £300 now, but I paid £165. Some people get a machine from the governor, but I like to have my own, because one day he might come and take it. We paid cash.”
“I don’t get any allowance for electricity, I think he should. And I have to pay for the machine to be serviced. But he provides all the materials, thread, stiffenings, fastenings.”
So if you take out the extra costs, the real rate per item may be as low as 15p.
Homeworkers face the same safety hazards as in the factory – with children around it can be even more dangerous. Trailing wires, overloaded plugs, scissors and pins. Unsuitable chairs and bad light add to tiredness.
“After 8 hours at the machine, my arms ache terribly. My shoulders get very stiff. I need to do some exercises.”
“I get very bad headaches with my eyes when I’ve been working for a long time.”
Under tne Health and Safety at Work Act, employers are responsible for homeworkers and should ensure that they are working in safe conditions. But checking is impossible – who wants the boss poking around their home. And in any case, if the employer found the premises unsuitable, he’d get some-one else rather than pay for improvements.
Even now, a homeworker may find herself unable to work at home because of planning regulations. If someone claims that the noise of the machine is a nuisance or that the use of the property has changed, then it may be illegal to continue working there. This can often act as a threat even if enforcement is unlikely:
“We were living in a two-room flat and I machined from 10 am to 4pm. I stoppedthen because of the noise. When we moved, I couldn’t continue because of the neighbours. They said they’d get the council. I was told it was against the law to work at home in this area.”
So many rules and regulations which no-one knows about. Working for very long hours for very low pay, disrupting your home. It’s not perhaps surprising that homeworkers are beginning to complain. Some women in Hackney are part of the London Homeworking Campaign, set up to improve life for homeworkers. They’ve drawn up a charter of demands for changes in the law and improved local facilities.
And Hackney is the first Council to appoint a Homeworking Officer – someone to make contact with homeworkers and provide them with information.
It’s a good idea. But why didn’t they realise that many women, especially from ethnic minorities, aren’t likely to welcome a male official into their homes. And in the end, improving conditions for homeworkers depends on getting better wages and conditions for all workers in the industry.
About 2000 workers in Hackney belong to the Tailor and Garment Workers union, most of them women. Organising the industry is a nightmare – so many small units opening and closing, employers openly hostile.
With a small membership on low wages, union funds are less than adequate. In such a fragmented industry, organisation is heavily dependent on full-time officials.
Only two are available to try and organise the 70,000 workers in the whole of the London region.
Much of their time is spent representing members on Tribunals, keeping in contact with organised workplaces. There’ s not much time to try and locate non-union factories, or do the research necessary to find out what’s going on. Inevitably, the smaller factories get left out.
The boss and the fear of intimidation remain one of the biggest hurdles to making new members.
“People talk very openly to the governor. A Turkish girl came to work here, and she tried to draw the attention of the other Turkish workers to conditions in Turkey — not here, but they weren’t interested. Now we’ve not much work, they’ve told her to leave, not anyone else.”
And with the industry a jungle, the Union can be seen as disturbing time-honoured practices:
“You’ll generally find in a firm like this, the rate of pay is less, the conditions are better, but the rate is less than in a non-Union place, where its free bargaining. Here the Union will get you the annual increment, but if you want more, you go and ask.”
Where women have joined the Union, its advantages are recognised:
“This is a Union shop, and you’re more or less protected, the management can’t say ‘clear off out’.”
Typical of the issues taken up include provision of first-aid rooms, proper toilet facilities, bringing in the public health inspector to measure fume levels and ventilation.
Getting even these basic rights in each factory requires a high level of Union membership. With weak organisation in the early stages, benefits of joining often appear small. It’s a vicious circle.
Time for a change
“The needle was the staple employment of women in London throughout the nineteenth century. Economic instability accentuated the seasonal nature of the work, making the skilled needlewoman’s living precarious, As slopwork (cheap goods) increased, so did the number of out or homeworkers, and the embroideresses, sempstresses, tambourers, artificial flower makers, makers of fine and expensive shirts, could no longer rely on regular employment, not even in the fasionable West End sectors of the trade.”
S. Alexander: Women’s work in 19th Century London.
A hundred years later, and what’s changed? As this pamphlet shows, women clothing workers still earn very low pay, work in bad and over-crowded conditions, find themselves out of work with little or no warning.
It makes you think!
– why is it women have lower paid jobs than men and often worse working conditions?
– why can’t workers run their own factories instead of working to put money in the governor’s pocket?
– why is it so impossible to enforce the few laws that should protect people at work?
– why aren’t there nurseries and proper play facilities for after-school hours?
– why haven’t ordinary people got enough money to buy clothes and other necessities?
Why indeed? And what can we do about it?
Changing our working lives in Hackney overnight is a bit of a tall order, but we can make a start – by demanding higher wages – greater protection for homeworkers – more Health and Safety inspectors – legal requirements that employers allow Union representatives on to their premises – nursery facilities for all children under five.
However, even these small improvements for working women aren’t at all popular with the present Conservative Government. One Minister has pronounced:
“If the Good Lord had intended us to have equal rights to go out to work, he wouldn’t have created men and women.”
They’re more interested in closing nurseries, cutting maternity rights, pushing women out of employment. And by attacking Trade Unions they want to stop us organising any protest.
Whether they succeed or not depends on us. And for many women in the clothing industry, the need for change is obvious:
“After all, it can’t always be like this. Eventually, something’s got to happen.”
We would like to thank everyone who helped in the preparation and production of this pamphlet, and particularly the women who gave up their lunch breaks to talk to us.
The controversry about the Museum of the Home’s racist memorial to slave trader Robert Geffrye continued this month. The Hackney Citizen reported that:
Of the 2,187 respondents to the [museum’s] consultation, 71 per cent voted to take the statue down, with 29 per cent saying to leave it up. Four per cent did not respond to the question.
Protests have been taking place regularly outside the still-closed museum and persons unknown have upped the ante with some radical redecoration to the exterior wall as can be seen in the photo above. Police are apparently investigating this as well as the impressive makeover of the statue itself:
Having steadfastly ignored the wishes of the community, the PR geniuses at the museum raised hackles across the borough with a tweet inviting people to implicate themselves in the ongoing shitstorm:
In happier news, the The Rio Tape/Slide Archive: Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 80s book has now been published and if you like this blog you should get it. It’s a lavish production with 254 pages filled with amazing photos and some great commentary from participants in the original Rio Tape/Slide project as well as Michael Rosen and Hackney photographer Alan Denney.
My copy arrived a few days ago and the few pages I have managed so far have already piqued my interest for some future entries here.
The book is £26 direct from Isola Press (and I think from the Rio itself and Artsword bookshop on Broadway Market) and is apparently going quick. If you can’t afford that, then check out the related free exhibition at the newly opened Hackney Museum (the museum that knows how to do things properly in Hackney).
The exhibition online launch event is online with some great presentations about Hackney in the 1980s and the background of the production of the book:
Alan Denney is also in conversation with the Hackney Society on 10th December. This free online event will cover his own incredible photos of Hackney in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some great 1980s posters from the Hackney Empire were unearthed this month. The poster on the left was tweeted by Hackney Museum who had this to say:
Opposition to South African Apartheid was widespread in 1980s Hackney In 1985 workers at the British Tyre & Rubber factory (SA) went on strike over rights, pay and conditions. Within 72 hours they were dismissed.This play was put on to raise money for the strikers #bhm2020
The poster on the right was posted by Hackney ranting poet and author Tim Wells on his excellent Stand Up and Spit blog. Tim’s skinhead werewolf pulp horror shocker of a novel Moonstomp was a highlight of last year and was mainly set in late 1970s Hackney. This month he announced his second novelShine On Me which promises “Skinhead werewolf, mod witches, dead Crass fans!”
Veteran radical Hackney historian Ken Worpole wrote a fascinating obituary for his friend Mick Hugo in the Guardian this month, covering his work as a merchant seaman and his time in Hackney the 1970s as a squatter, housing activist and Centerprise volunteer amongst many other things.
Meanwhile in horticultural history, The Happy Man Tree was voted “Tree of the Year”. It’s a 150 year old grade A London Plane street tree near Woodberry Down which is (still?) slated for demolition by Berkeley Homes.
Hackney Archives is sadly still closed but Friends of Hackney Archives are going strong and have unusually published a copy of their newsletteronline with an update on the archives and articles including Philip Twells MP (a slave owner who lived on Stoke Newington Church Street), the campaign to restore the Hackney stocks, Hackney in London Parish maps circa 1900 and more.
Hackney Account is an inspiring youth-led police monitoring group launched earlier this year. They just published their reportPolicing in Hackney: Challenges From Youth In 2020 with some excellent statistics and commentary about stop and search and other recent policing issues in the borough. I was struck by the title and its resonance with the essential book published by Karia Press in 1988 and how some things have improved since then, while some things have stayed the same.