Charing Cross Road, a heaving mass of punters, tourists and ambling drunkards flows past Samuel's workplace at its usual frenetic, clogged pace, until one of its number dislodges himself. An ambling drunkard. He sports baggy pants, a loose striped jacket and a whiskery, unkempt beard. He shouts at Samuel to the rustle of a plastic Waterstone's bag. "Fuck eh, you .you what are you doing?" "What!" Samuel stays back, keeps cool. The abuse runs in thick streams, words can barely be made out. Curious shoppers stare wildly over their issues of Zoo and The Economist. The man is black; Samuel is black too. "Fou!" Is it French? Red-eyed, mouth agape, the man keeps screaming, grabs his bag and plunges back into the crowd. Punters dive back into their torrents of headlines, semi-nudes and Harry Potter blurbs at the Borders storefront. Samuel resumes his lax position at the reception, wistfully contemplating the crowds.
Charing Cross Road is the pulse of multicultural London, an artery of pleasure, strife and boredom, snaking from the imperial grandeur of Trafalgar Square to the heart of Oxford Street. Its pedestrian flow makes a garish display; multicultural, festive and sweaty. Almost half of the UK's ethnic minorities live in the capital, clustered in villages: Jews up Golders Green, Cypriots in Haringey, Arabs at Edgware Road and hip white things in Islington. Charing Cross road is where they meet, shop and scuffle: but it is also a place where cultures are put to work. If the now bitterly contested British model of multiculturalism is falling ill, Charing Cross Road is a good place to take its blood pressure.
The security guard
"We don't get too much abuse. We are trained to handle this," Samuel says laconically. No security guard clichés apply to his five foot eight inch frame: no bouncy muscles, towering torso or chiselled face, and only a small corporate insignia on his plain T-shirt indicates he might be at work. Except, that is, for one distinct marker of those guarding the shopfronts and clubs of central London's incongruous geography these days, a marker by now too clichéd to even be noticed by most Londoners: Samuel is black.
"I have been working as a security guard for three years," he says. "You get a lot of junkies in this area. Sometimes you have to be aggressive." Samuel smiles, pushing out his chest a little. "You have to know how to act depending on the person. It's like science action and reaction." He chuckles ever so slightly.
Samuel comes from Nigeria, as do many others in his profession. His eyes flick back and forth, scanning the throng of people. "You can't stand like this for too long, talking somebody might just go in, take a pack of CDs and leave," he says. Samuel excuses himself, adding his name and a furtive handshake as an afterthought. Less than five minutes' talk in all.
The private security sector is expanding, and guards now adorn even the humblest of supermarket checkouts and dingiest of clubs. A "visual deterrent" to crime, security companies claim. And this visual deterrence is increasingly performed by bored-looking black Britons and Africans. The good news may be that black minorities, still two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than white Britons, are now entrusted with security matters, inching a bit higher up London's pecking order. The bad news is that an ethnic furrow is drilled into London's asphalt, channelling black men into badly paid, vulnerable frontline positions.
Politicians, pundits and even the police have often praised the multicultural British model of integration, not without good reason. Nobody will launch into patriotic sing-a-longs or wave a Union Jack in the face of the hookah-smoking, Morris dancing, Qur'an-chanting and sauerkraut-eating masses. But this is all multiculturalism by night. Multiculturalism also works works hard up Charing Cross Road, down dingy backstreets, at the back of fusty pubs, deep in the cellars of milk-white Kensington hotels, under the sterile bulbs of NHS surgeries.
It may be insolent to heave another load of real-world grit onto multiculturalism's back at this time of trials by government, racism and terror. But dreary work is the flipside to London's multicultural project. Black bouncers, Asian shopkeepers, African parking attendants, Polish bartenders, Spanish chambermaids, Irish builders, African nurses, Indian doctors they all come to London and find their place, as if by serendipity, from £4.85 an hour and counting. Europe's financial capital is insatiable, spongy, absorbent. But do people pick jobs according to ability and preference, or is the grid already laid out for them; colourful, deceptive and non-negotiable as a London tube map?
The parking attendant
Like security guards, parking attendants are too busy for a chat. Brisk, outsourced, undaunted, they roam the capital's grimy single yellow lines armed with just an oversized machine to crunch number-plates and a council vest against cold winds and the evil eye. And they are virtually unstoppable, furtive figures.
"I am too busy, don't have time," says my first interview target, a stern black parking attendant. He walks off briskly, escaping the lunging white hack. Luck comes in the voluminous shape of a fast-paced black woman negotiating a Camden sidestreet. Her vest is deceptively branded with a comforting council-green dye that blends with a minuscule NCP insignia the private, nationwide parking venture that won Camden Council's lucrative enforcement contract in 2001.
Is this one of London's toughest jobs? "No, it's not that hard!" she chuckles, scanning a white van's pay-and-display ticket. She treads along briskly. "Really, it's OK," she assures me. "In the beginning it's harder, but you get used to it. The abuse comes daily, of course. It's not the job for you if you can't handle abuse. But if you know you are doing the right thing, it's OK. You just walk away when they start shouting."
She is matter-of-fact, stout and cheerful, her hair sculpted into a bun. I tag along, barely keeping up. Is she running away from her stalker? What's her name? "You can call me this!" she chuckles again, pointing to her shoulder cuff. It says 1571. "I am not allowed to say my name. Here I am a number my name doesn't matter." 1571 looks busier and busier. The radio crackles. Where is she from? "Nigeria." Why do so many Africans do this job? "Oh, I don't know," 1571 says, curtly or just briskly. We reach the end of the block, another grey Camden thoroughfare beckons beyond, with a neat stack of pay-and-displays. She is speeding wait too late. 1571 chuckles, says goodbye. A colleague approaches could be her cousin: hair neatly wrapped, fast-paced, African features. Then a male colleague black, African traits. One, two, three, all heading down the same street, an avalanche of attendants And my failed source, pacing briskly as ever. But now he smiles. "So, you found somebody?" His accent, too, is African.
No job evokes such hostility as parking enforcement, more so since public-private partnerships and new profit-making incentives began unleashing a ticketing bonanza on the capital's streets. But London's parking business has been doubly outsourced: to private ventures and flak-catching Africans, who have relentlessly populated the payrolls. At the public-private faultline they teeter, armed with silly hats and plastic machinery, come rain or shine or saliva-spattering owners of four-by-fours.
Enforcing London's rules and patrolling private property are tough tasks, but somebody's got to do them. Not to worry: multiculturalism assigns the posts. Please tick the ethnic monitoring form and wait in line. If you tick "black", the chance is you will soon find your place within London's hard-working, visually deterring foot soldier community.
Who's doing what A rough guide to working Britain
4.3 per cent of Pakistanis work as shopkeepers, wholesale and retail dealers, compared to 0.5 per cent of white Britons
4.2 per cent of Indians work as medical practitioners, compared to 0.5 per cent white Britons
16 per cent of Bangladeshis work as chefs, compared to 0.7 per cent white Britons
11.3 per cent of Bangladeshis work as retail assistants, compared to 6.3 of all Asians and 4.5 of whites
2 per cent of Asians work as cashiers or checkout operators, compared to 1.1 per cent of whites
9.4 per cent of Pakistanis are chauffeurs or cab drivers, compared to 0.5 per cent whites and 0.9 per cent of blacks
8.5 per cent of black Africans are nurses, compared to 1.7 per cent whites, few South Asians and 11.2 per cent of "other Asians"
3.6 per cent of black Africans work as security guards, compared to 0.5 per cent of whites
Approximations based on data from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, December 2004 February 2005. Ethnic minority data is unreliable due to sample size.
Aftab huddles behind a desk cluttered with weekly glossies, breath mints, KP nuts and 2p sweets, the radio filling his shop with muted noise. "Violence is not the solution," he sighs, referring both to the still recent 7 July London bombs and Iraq. On a shelf by the open door, a four-year-old copy of The Economist peeks out next to a gaudy selection of lads' mags. "The day the world changed", its front page trumpets, to the dust and fumes of Manhattan. "It reminds me of when it all started," Aftab says softly.
His cornershop is set in the shadow of thronging, roaring Camden Town station. Aftab comes from Pakistan, or rather, Kashmir. "Ever since Pakistan was created out of the British Empire in 1947 by [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah, it has failed to reconcile the different nations within its borders. It's an artificial creation. Actually, there are only two countries in the world created on the basis of religion: Israel and Pakistan," he says, bemused. "Their borders are a colonial legacy."
Since coming to Britain in 1997, Aftab has become the hub of a local community made up of itinerant builders, international students, crackheads, Bangladeshi shopkeepers and working-class families. He knows everybody. "My brother was running the shop when I got here, then he fell ill. I started coming to the shop, reading four-five papers a day: that's how I got to know all the people around here." He has braved shoplifters, stinkbombs and random yobbery, and recently appeared on the BBC after launching a petition against drug-related crime.
Aftab holds a Masters in Sociology from the University of Karachi. "When I came here they told me that if you have a Third World qualification, you need to get a diploma in this country," he says. "The Job Centre is just there to give you your £52 a week in benefit, and then you're off. They don't help you find jobs. I was registered there for two years, and scanned job offers all the time. At one point I said, 'please, just give me anything!' I told them I could study for a diploma to complete my qualifications, but they weren't interested. Then I started to get more involved here." He still wants to study a Masters of Science in Human Rights.
Has he felt discriminated against? "No, it's the same for everyone." He smiles. I ask him why he thinks so many Asians have set up shop. He looks unsure, and eventually produces a bit of sociology. "When migrants first started arriving here, many were uneducated and set up shops and have continued since then. But their children often prefer to go looking for employers. With Sainsbury's and Tesco opening local stores, the cornershop is becoming a thing of the past."
In this "nation of shopkeepers", shopkeeping has been subcontracted to that old imperial safeguard of the nation's values, British Asia. Small-scale entrepreneurs of Indian or Pakistani extraction have absorbed the retail function, running cornerstores as well as staffing supermarkets, high street stores and bank counters. They are not alone, of course: Turkish Cypriots have carved a clothes-and-food niche out of north London. But Asian shopkeepers are the only group with full-spectrum dominance, from Haringey to Hampstead. However their market share is increasingly threatened by supermarkets that wedge their slick Express, Local, Metro and Central chains into minuscule urban spaces. Does that leave you, or your kids, unemployed? Please tick the "Asian" box, and be patient: the chance is you will be handling supermarket tills, sorting ballpoint pens in a stationers, or stacking crates before you know it.
The supermarket assistant
Feronda pauses from stacking tins and dons a sincere, expectant grin worthy of the glossiest of Corporate Social Responsibility reviews. He is happy with his job as a Sainsbury's customer assistant. "I'm from Sri Lanka. I'm a refugee. Only I and one more are from Sri Lanka in this shop most of the other people here are Pakistani." Actually, all the other customer assistants seem to be Brits of Pakistani background. Even the security guard is Asian. Why does Feronda think this is so? "Oh, this I don't know," he says, tugging his grin along, keen to move on to the next question. "I like it here, I want to stay I especially enjoy being on the shop floor. Before I worked for four years as a car mechanic up the road," he waves past pea cans, north "doing night shifts. That was very hard." Now he works 3-11pm, five days a week, at £6 an hour. "Let's see about £850 a month for a 39-hour week," he says. He looks thrilled, grateful. Before coming to the UK he studied computers, but struggles to translate his education into British levels. "I didn't apply for any other jobs just this," he says. But is there anything he doesn't like about the job? "No, no," he says, with the sparkling grin making a lingering plea for mercy. The largely white Chalk Farm clientele scavenges for breakfast bagels and tender-stem broccoli. Feronda's colleagues shuffle past, aisle-wide looks in their eyes.
Whether British supermarkets' workforces are as diverse as their stock of curries, mozzarella and stodgy German bread is hard to ascertain their statistics slip from your hands like salmon. Fourteen percent of Sainsbury's employees and three to four percent of its managers come from ethnic minorities: more detailed figures are not available from either Sainsbury's or Tesco, despite their equal opportunities policies.
Sainsbury's prohibits discrimination and strives to "move beyond simple legal compliance," according to Cheryl Kuczynski, a spokeswoman. "We actively look to employ colleagues who reflect the diversity of our customers," she says. Tesco, the behemoth of the British food market, says targets have been set to get so-called "ethnic groups" into managerial positions. Flexible work during Ramadan and Diwali and briefings in languages like Hindi, Urdu, and Bangladeshi are two selling points. All according to its Corporate Social Responsibility review.
Katie Jenkins, Tesco's employment spokeswoman, says that diversity "creates a great atmosphere in stores" and makes everybody contribute with different skills and knowledge. "Retail is a fast-paced environment, so we look for people who can adapt well to change, people who are very customer-focused. The stores reflect the demographics of the local area. It is about recruiting local people into local jobs."
In lush white Hampstead, amid the cobblestones, blonde beer, Unitarian churches, window displays of pains au céréales and fragrant Jojoba oils, lurks an unbecoming Tesco Express. Inside, Jayvishal is morosely stacking boxes of vegetables. "I can't do an interview if it's going to take time," he warns. I try an optimistic note. What does he like most about his job?" "I don't like it at all," he says, his slightly pained face sloping down into an unlikely smile. "It's hard work, very hard work. Packing all the time."
Jayvishal is from India. "There are not many Indians here mainly Sri Lankans and some Europeans," he says. By European he must mean British Asian: all the shop's staff look Asian. How did he find this £6-an-hour job? "Oh, through the Job Centre, and then I had some friends over here," Jayvishal answers, somewhat cryptically. "I have been in the UK since 2003, and couldn't find a job for a while. It was very hard. Legally, international students are only allowed to work 20 hours a week, but during vacations I do overtime. It is difficult economically I have to pay rent, transport and everything, and only earn £500 a month."
Jayvishal is studying a Masters in Business and Finance at London's Metropolitan University. While not in India he lives in Queensbury, zone four, on the Jubilee line that branches through a parallel part or galaxy, perhaps of north London. Skills and knowledge he has: a local he is not. The manager, a short-set, trim-bearded man of South Asian features presses up against us, fingering the stack of plastic boxes. Time to retreat. "And when you're finished " the orders fade, giving way to wine bars and American ice cream parlours slanting down the north London hillside.
Hampstead is at the extreme end of the spectrum. But a random Monday afternoon headcount at seventeen West End supermarkets, where workers are least likely to be drawn from a residential pool, confirms the ethnic pattern, albeit with minor variations. One hundred customer assistants were of Asian background, fifty-eight were black, nineteen white, and four "other Asians". The eleven security guards on duty were all black but for one.
The bar tender
It would be a mistake to think that low-paid jobs are the reserve of the Queen's post-colonial subjects. Some minorities have fared quite well: ethnic Indians, for one, are now approaching the employment chances of white Britons. Meanwhile, London's pint-pullers earn even less than its shelf-fillers, and a terrifying ninety-seven percent of pub workers nationwide are white. Why?
Perhaps Al Murray's comedy act the Pub Landlord hinted at the answer when saying that there should be no things foreign in a proper English pub, with the natural exception of peanuts. Peanuts are more nondescript than exotic, a bit like the "white other" box on the ethnic monitoring forms. And so it is that Europeans, Australians and their fellow Antipodeans have been swallowed by the fusty land of minimum wages, ruddy-faced regulars and sticky floors.
Behind the bar, a twenty-something lad moves packets of crisps about. Covent Garden's cobbled streets unfold outside. "Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning all the time," he says, in spotless English. "There's lots of cleaning in this pub." He doesn't look glum at all saying it. The pub is one of a constellation of glinting properties on the online London map of the Spirit Group, one of the UK's biggest pub businesses with over two thousand venues to its name. Boleslaw has worked here since May, and shares the pleasure with a girl from Sweden, another from France, an Irish boss and two other Poles a friend and the assistant manager. He got his job through the previous manager, also Irish. "That's a traditional English pub for you!" he says.
This is not the first time I come across the Ladder. The Ladder is a peculiar upstairs-downstairs way of ordering the capital's economy. The lower steps of many a London workplace are, predictably enough, dominated by the poor relatives of the world economy: Poles, Colombians and Nigerians abound. But climb one step up, and surprisingly often you will find employees from closer to home: Irish managing continental Europeans, perhaps, or Spaniards managing Colombians. On the top of the Ladder, perch the white English top managers and boardroom staff. The Commission for Racial Equality's (CRE) chairman Trevor Phillips has called it "snow-capping", or white on black: only 1.4 percent of executive management comes from ethnic minorities.
"It's a very hard job and not paid very well. The minimum: £4.85," Boleslaw continues. No big deal. This is his third bout of pub work in London. "At least this is a very nice area, with lots of theatres around." Nice areas make customer flows impressive, and it's hectic, lager-churning madness. "After a while you get used to it even if it's packed you can listen to the music and chat up a girl. But you work till late and don't have time for yourself. You wake up at nine or ten next morning and start work at 12. It's like a full circle." He smiles. "If you get some days off, you just chill upstairs," he adds, pointing heavenward. Boleslaw and his colleagues sleep upstairs: it's a live-in pub.
Despite paying rent to his landlord-bosses, Boleslaw can save "a few hundreds" each month, he says. He is a graphic designer and photographer, a graduate of Poland's Academy of Fine Arts, and has worked for advertising agencies back home. "It's a dodgy job market in Poland, simple as that," he says, unapologetically. "The UK market is more stable. You can do bar work for a while, then start looking around for what you really want to do."
A man with entourage orders pints of Tetley and pork scratchings. A colleague shows up, and Boleslaw breaks into Polish for a few sentences, cackling until the colleague disappears into the sunshine.
What do his fellow Poles do in the capital these days? "Any job you can get," he says. "Normally, guys who are tough enough go work on building sites, but others go into these jobs. The guy who just left, for example, is a doctor." A doctor? "Yeah it's easy to find them working in pubs. We got lawyers, we got doctors, graphic designers, actors, the lot. This country has got the most educated bar staff ever," he says cheerily, pouring pints of Guinness for a couple of Koreans. He has only applied for one graphic design job so far, and saves his pounds with determination. "I felt I had too good qualifications. They looked at my portfolio and said 'you're too good, you better go somewhere else'. When the time comes, I'll do it."
Years back, London's fleet of theme pubs, Irish pubs, local pubs and all the other concept and brand name pubs shop-fronting for Japanese investment banks were manned by cheery mates from Down Under. The Anglo-Saxon reaches of empire supplemented London's homegrown working class with much-needed building and boozing skills. Aussies and Kiwis provided the pint-pulling crowd. South Africans joined the Irish on the building sites. The Working Holiday Visa kept the children of the Commonwealth snuggled on old England's beer belly for years.
But in 2000, New Labour sowed the seeds of a revised migration strategy, which has blossomed into today's demand-based, quotas-and-points approach. Working Holiday rules for Commonwealth countries changed in 2003, and Antipodeans have moved into administration, computer work and public services with the easing of job-type restrictions. Poles are entering the pub-and-scaffolding race, quickly filling their predecessors' place. Some 98,500 Poles had applied for Britain's worker registration scheme in May 2005, over half of all new east European hopefuls arriving in the wake of 2004's EU expansion. Eighty percent of them earned up to £5 an hour.
The arrival of Poles is changing the demographic makeup of other parts of London's service economy, too. José Vigo, employment adviser, senses a growing fashion for east European employees at his West End Job Centre, which specialises in low-paid hotel and catering vacancies "that have not been taken through the domestic labour market".
Southern Europeans and Latin Americans, often over-skilled but with poor English, have peopled the lower reaches of London's job market for years, where a dank stereotype of the Latin service worker has grown. A recent Job Centre language survey confirms the lingering Mediterranean makeup of London's catering and hotel trades: Spanish clocked in as first language, followed by Portuguese, French and Italian but with upstart Polish wedged in at third place.
Statistics are scant and unreliable and the turnover ferocious, but Vigo confirms that employers now head for eastern Europe rather than scavenging the Iberian soils for catering and hotel staff. "There they get better levels of English and people willing to do that kind of job."
The service sector is likely to continue haunting southern European visitors, however. "London is still one of the most popular places in Europe for young Spaniards," says Manuela Martínez, adviser for EU employment network Eures in southern Spain. "People want to master English and make their CVs look better. But if their level of English is low, they will work in places where they don't deal with the public, in 'backstage' jobs. They end up spending a year in London and bring back three or four words related to the hotel trade. Then, naturally, they only tell people about the good things that happened, and the process starts snowballing."
The backstage jobs of London's fickle service economy have a convenient feature: as Portuguese hotel workers, Spanish chambermaids and Latin American kitchen porters mingle in their trade, they speak Spanish instead of English. And the less English they speak, the more likely they will languish in their underpaid niches. London keeps luring job-hunters into its wide nets, its finance-fuelled economy selects and cherrypicks the candidates, and multiculturalism keeps them apart, blissful in their ghettoes.
The state's story
Government departments are blissful in their ghettoes, too, and keep chucking the ball out of their own ponds. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does not target specific ethnic groups, says Ben Lloyd, a spokesman, who suggests I try the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), which deals with safeguarding employees' rights. And what does the DTI think? A spokesperson mentions Tony Blair's 2003 cross-departmental Ethnic Minorities Employment Task Force, but little more: the DWP is wrong "we don't deal with getting people into jobs."
Academia is also suffering from a "paucity of research" on ethnic recruitment according to Dr Sophia Skyers, senior research fellow on the London labour market with the public interest company Office for Public Management (OPM). She explains ethnic niching in relation to London's expanding knowledge economy. "We are seeing a polarisation of the labour force into, on the one hand, high-paid jobs in professional and financial services and, on the other hand, retail, protective services and other personal services like healthcare," she says. "What we get is a pattern of occupational segregation a lot of people are forced into particular employment groups, often because of discrimination in other sectors. The stereotype goes with the job, and sticks to the people who get these jobs."
Professor Michael Hardt, co-author of the watershed tome Empire about how power has been redistributed in a globalised world, agrees that multiculturalism plays an economic role in the new economy. "Britain's multicultural model can facilitate an ethnic division of labour, a model that has perhaps a longer history in the Americas," he says. "Racialized hierarchies and exploitation do not always function along the old or assumed models of exclusion. But it's worth insisting that recognizing that cultural diversity can be part of a new scheme of exploitation does not mean we should be against cultural diversity as such. What we need to strive for is equality and freedom within this multicultural society."
Trevor Phillips has criticised multiculturalism for keeping people apart, labelling it "a typically British way of dealing with difference". But now the stakes are higher. While London Mayor Ken Livingstone praised multiculturalism in the wake of the 2005 London bombings, Tony Blair announced a crackdown on Britain's permissive liberal consensus to a chorus of tabloid approval. But even multiculturalism's defenders often have little clue of what it really is, or does. Multiculturalism is not only a heap of colours, it is a machine with cogs that whirr. It not only fuses, but keeps apart. It doesn't so much discriminate as direct a choreography of cultures. Much like a latter-day, benign sort of empire, where all races and cultures play a minor part in the symphony of power.
On the ring road again
Your no-frills flight descends among thick nighttime clouds and your bags emerge from the bowels of Stansted airport. Now it's business the British way. Bearded Muslims, lavish Iberian girls and red-nosed Brits clutching Su Doku books mingle in the halls and tow their luggage into the rainy night, stared on by billboards vying for their London fare. Outside, hordes of many-accented hustlers flog £5 one-ways for cheap airbus upstarts. Beyond the Pink Elephant car park waits the National Express. A stream of people crosses the wet asphalt, oblivious to the hustlers' calls. This is how multicultural London commutes, in and out of London, twenty-four hours a day, every fifteen minutes.
Chris descends from his bus and lights a quick fag before his next drive. "The job is not as stressful as it looks," he says. "It's easy, and the pay's quite good. £22,000 a year because I do night shifts." He cuts a stoic figure, tall and bulky, his shaved head pinched by an earring. His colleagues, like him, are overwhelmingly white, bald, and big, emblems of the well-fed English working class. They ferry multiculturalism in and out of the capital. What do the people boarding his coach to the throbbing financial hub of Europe do, then? "Well," Chris puffs on his fag, thinks. "We carry a lot of students, some come over on a gap year, a small portion are on business and the bulk of them are tourists and sightseers."
What about the workers? Where are they? Who notices the shelf-stacker in the business student, the pint-puller in the graduate, the cornershop owner among the businessmen, the sandwich wrappers, cappuccino steamers and doormen among the tourists? Not Chris, not Ken, not Tony, nor Middle England or the City elite. The City: white as a scrubbed cathedral wall, home of offshore dollars and high-value bonds, generator of the service economy and its guards, attendants, retailers, cleaners, drivers. And Chris, where does he live? "I live in Haverhill, outside Cambridge," he says, stubs out his fag, and sets the motor purring towards the M25.