Curry workers turn up heat for better conditions

A new union is striving to win fairer job rights for some of the UK's 100,000 Bangladeshi-British chefs
  • @jerometaylor

Muhammad Salim Uddin stands over a piping hot gas stove and throws a handful of sliced chicken breast into a pan.

With a deft flick of his wrist, the oil catches the lip of the pan and ignites into a two-foot wall of flame. Another one of Brick Lane's famous curries makes its way out of the kitchen.

Mr Uddin is comparatively fortunate. His boss pays him a decent wage and holiday entitlement is written into his contract. But a considerable number of the estimated 100,000 Bangladeshi Britons working in the curry trade often find themselves exploited by unscrupulous owners who happily take advantage of their ignorance of the minimums to which they are entitled.

In between dishes Mr Uddin describes the working conditions that many of his fellow cooks labour under. "I had a friend who worked for six years straight and never took a holiday," he says. "He was always working, never had time off. He didn't realise he was entitled to it. He knew nothing about sick leave. He just came into work all the time."

But a small but growing band of restaurant workers and community leaders are hoping to change that, with the creation of a new union aimed at the curry trade and other industries where Bangladeshi Britons are prominent.

The Bangladeshi Workers Union, quietly launched a week ago, already has 500 members and is in discussions with Unite and the GMB to become affiliate members. Azmal Hussain, a Brick Lane restaurant owner who helped set up the union (and Mr Uddin's boss) hopes a collective bargaining unit will help restaurant staff to win fairer working conditions.

"Bangladesh itself has a strong trade union movement but for some reason Bangladeshis in Britain never really got involved in creating their own version," he says, walking through Prithi, one of two restaurants he owns. "There are so many workers that are completely unaware of their rights. It's time we treated them as humans, not as commodities."

Mr Hussain is something of a con- troversial character in Brick Lane, the beating heart of East London's 40,000-strong Bangladeshi community. He was once a prominent financier with George Galloway's now defunct Respect party, and is rarely shy about speaking his mind. Five years ago he blew the lid on a visa scamin which migrants were tricked into paying thousands of pounds for jobs that didn't exist after a member of his family members fell victim to the scheme.

"I'm not very popular among some restaurant owners," he admits, grinning. "Some of them will not be happy about a union, they will want to carry on paying people small wages. But others will know we are trying to do a good thing." Although restaurant owners have been reluctant to get involved, factory owners and corner shops have been receptive.

The new union has also received support from local Labour politicians, once viewed by Mr Hussain as his political enemies. Shiria Khatun, a councillor, and Murad Qureshi, a Greater London Assembly member, have thrown their weight behind the Bangladeshi Workers Union while the Labour peer Lord Glasman is leading the negotiations with Unite and the GMB.

"It's something I think we should all support," says Mr Qureshi. "Brick Lane gets the glitz and attention but working conditions could be improved and this is a means of doing that."