In spring 2019 our local solidarity network was approached by a building worker, originally from Punjab, who had worked on a shop conversion of a beauty parlour for a female boss from the same background. His English is pretty weak, he had arrived some years back, whereas she and her family is well established and own various properties in the area. They didn’t sign any contractual agreements before he started working. He worked on the site for two weeks, after which he was paid £420 in cash. He was promised further payments, of which he had proof in form of text messages, but they payments were never made. He contacted the solidarity network during one of our weekly drop-ins in Southall. The only proof of the fact that he had worked for the boss were photos he took of the work in progress (plastering, tiling, painting, fixing of mirror units etc.). We wrote an IWW Union letter to the store address, asking the boss to pay the outstanding £1,600. She replied by saying that the builder was a family friend, that he never gave an estimate and that his work was not up to standards. She also said that he was employed through a contractor, not by her directly. We asked her to give us an estimate of how many hours the builder had worked and the contact of the building contractor, for which the builder allegedly had worked for. She did not want to give us this information.
After another letter we visited the store with two comrades from the RMT, the builder and a friend who the solidarity network had helped during a previous case. We spoke to the people inside the shop, but the boss was not on site. The people inside were beauticians who hire their seats from the boss. We said that we will unfortunately have to tell people to boycott the store as long as the outstanding wages were not paid – and that we understand that this will also impact on the beauticians income. We asked them to put pressure on their landlady to cough up the money. We set up a short picket at the shop, but primarily in order to send a picture to the boss, together with a copy of the leaflet we intended to distribute. The boss reacted by phoning the builder and threatening him with the police, accusing him of harassment. She also mentioned during a phone conversation that the builder and his family “actually live in my aunts house and I could have them kicked out”. She also said that she is “not racist or anything, but this generation is really bad”, referring to recent migrants from Punjab, which is where her family originates from, too.
We waited for a week and then organised a call-in action to the shops business phone number, asking fellow workers to ask the boss to pay up. We also asked people to leave reviews on social media, mentioning the outstanding wages. A week later we organised a second picket, this time the boss was present and filming us. People on the high street were generally supportive when they found out about the reason for the protest. After an hour two police vans and a police car arrived. A group of (female) cops said that the boss felt harassed by our presence. We told them that any boss would feel harassed about a picket and that we did not call to the private phone number or stand in front of her private house, but a business address. The cops insisted that ‘if a person feels harassed, then it is harassment’ and told us that if we would not end the picket we could be arrested and/or issued with a harassment warning. We decided to stop the picket at this point and get a permission from the council to organise a peaceful protest. After this picket the boss called the builder and told him to ‘drop the case and leave the outsiders out of this’ and offered £500. At the same time she wrote a letter to the union saying that the ‘women in the shop feel traumatised and we will file a compensation claim’.
The builder decided not to accept the offer. We told him that we supported him, but also explained that we could not be certain to get the full amount either through protest or legal avenues. We organised a third picket, this time a male family member of the boss arrived, wrote and distributed a counter-leaflet to local people. One of the self-employed beauticians helped him. In the leaflet he tried to smear the reputation of the builder. The cops didn’t turn up this time. After this action the builder said he wanted to go through the courts. We told him that this would take long time and cost fees. We also told him that we would need another witness of the fact that he worked on site for the period of time. He said this might be difficult, as most of the beauticians are part of the ‘bosses community’. We started the legal work but encouraged him to find any additional evidence. After two weeks we got back in touch, but the witness was not willing to speak out. The boss of the company asked us to come to a final meeting to settle the issue, but the builder failed to turn up. It seems the case is lost.
This is a pretty unsatisfying result, but not uncommon, given the type of work (cash in hand), the ‘community pressure’ and the legal system (harassment charges and court fees).
We don’t do this out of charity or humanism – we want to build a network of working class people who spread the message: solidarity and direct action is our best self-defence. We want to grow to a critical mass where we can support strikes during their initial stage from outside.