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Just over a year ago, on 24 April 2013, more than 1,100 people were killed and 2,500 injured in the collapse of a garment factory at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. The victims were supplying the clothes that make their way onto our high street and which you and I wear daily without a second thought. The shock which reverberated around the world from the RanaPlaza catastrophe was genuine, but the sad truth is that the disaster revealed only the tip of an iceberg of horrific conditions and poverty pay for garment workers, not only in Bangladesh but across numerous countries.

The average monthly wage for a Bangladeshi garment worker is barely £50, yet they are increasingly being undercut by other nations where the pay is even lower, such as Cambodia or Laos. Child labour remains rife, with an ITV documentary earlier this year showing children as young as 13 being forced to work 11-hour days in order to produce clothes for UK retailers.

But despite all this, there has been a small glimmer of hope. The pressure from consumers following the disaster helped to change things a little bit for the better. Last year, more than 100 clothing retailers, including most of Britain’s leading high street brands, signed up to an Accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. This introduced statutory safety inspections of garment factories, funds to help factory owners make their buildings safe to work in, and gave workers the right to refuse to work in an unsafe building, without loss of pay. Bangladesh has also seen a sizeable increase in its minimum wage agreed. Without concerted pressure from consumers, alongside governments and international NGOs, it is unlikely that anything like as many retailers would have signed up to the Accord.

Having seen what consumer power can do, it is surely right to continue to push for further improvements in working conditions in the clothing sector, both in Bangladesh and beyond.

There are improvements on the way for workers around the world, but there’s a long way still to go. And we must not allow the garment industry to simply export those problems to other countries. Manufacturing clothes can provide valuable, secure employment for hundreds of thousands of people, both at home and in some of the world’s poorest countries. But there is no reason why that has to mean going to work in unsafe factories, the exploitation of children or the paying of poverty wages.

I will be supporting @fash_rev. As you can see, on Fashion Revolution Day, I turned my clothes inside and showed public support for the cause. Support the cause by going to fashionrevolution.org or getting in touch with me at www.facebook.com/bilal.cwg, @bilalmahmood13.

 Bilal Mahmood is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green (the seat currently held by Iain Duncan Smith). He is a lawyer and a campaigner social mobility for over ten years. He was born in Woodford Green and raised in Walthamstow, working as treasurer of the CLP there. 

Rana Plaza: one year on

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Trevor Phillips’ recent report worryingly pointed out that there are just 10 people from ethnic minority backgrounds among the 289 Chairman, Chief Executives and Chief Finance Officers of FTSE 100 companies.

We should and we must challenge the private sector to do better, as the Government are doing with regard to women on boards. And just as with drives to increase the representation of women in positions of responsibility, I believe that the public sector needs to set an example to the private sector.

But just as with increasing the representation of women in positions of responsibility, this Government are failing to get their own house in order when it comes to harnessing the talents of those from BAME backgrounds, and in many cases are wiping out years of progress made by the last Labour government.

Over the 3 years before the election, Labour increased ethnic minority representation within the civil service by 11%, but since 2010 this progress has been all but cancelled out, and the proportion of ethnic minority staff working at the most senior level – which includes directors and permanent secretaries – has fallen.

Even in London, which has a BAME population of some 40%, just 6% of those in the top jobs share those backgrounds, despite the fact that ethnic minorities are over-represented in entry level and intermediate positions.

This simply isn’t good enough.

We need a culture change in our civil service, away from the stuffy elitism of the past, and towards a modern, meritocratic service which attracts and promotes the best and the brightest, regardless of their background, their skin colour or their old school tie; a service which looks and thinks like the country it serves.

We can’t change that culture instantly, but we can take significant steps to achieve the critical mass required to achieve change from within.

To that end, our Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Michael Dugher set out last week how a One Nation Labour Government will ensure that the Civil Service Fast Stream, which selects outstanding candidates for rapid promotion through the ranks, will be required to ensure that its annual intake comprises at least 18% of successful candidates from BAME backgrounds.

We’ll also expand internship opportunities, successful completion of which will improve the young person’s chances of getting on to the Fast Stream.

These actions alone will mean that hundreds more able people from BAME backgrounds will be in positions of power and influence in the civil service by the end of the next Parliament.

This isn’t about tokenism. We make these arguments because we know that our public institutions – just like our businesses - work better and are more responsive if they reflect and embrace the talents of the communities and the country that they serve.

Of course, it’s only a start, and there’s a great deal more a future Labour government will need to do to shatter the glass ceilings which remain in the workplace, and particularly to open up the professions and well paid jobs to those from non-white, non-privileged backgrounds.

These issues – and many more - are at the heart of Labour’s consultation on a new One Nation Race Equality Strategy, and I hope everyone reading this will contribute their views to this important process, and help shape Labour’s policies in this area ahead of next year’s election.

But it’s an important start nonetheless, and one which demonstrates that only a One Nation Labour Government can and will deliver the changes we need to see to make our society a much fairer and more prosperous one for everyone – not just those at the top.

Sharon Hodgson MP is Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, and represents the constituency of Washington and Sunderland West.

Not just White-hall: creating a One Nation Civil service

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At the end of last year, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, disgracefully equated vulnerable sections of society to ‘cornflakes’ in his infamous Margaret Thatcher speech. He also went on to state that inequality is ‘natural’ and ‘essential’. His oxymoronic cure for inequality (which in London equates to thousands using foodbanks and sleeping rough whilst the ‘super-rich’ thrive) is to cause further hardship for vulnerable groups because, he believes, it is healthy to foster a ‘spirit of envy’. 

It is shameful that the Mayor of a city as diverse and wealthy as London can advocate such a view and get away with it. Despite the reams of evidence that demonstrate the structural inequality across the capital, the Mayor keeps his fingers in his ears and lets the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is made even worse that this is due not only to his general incompetence, but also to his genuine, personal outlook on society – as demonstrated in his speech at the Margaret Thatcher lecture. 

My cost of living report, Falling Further Behind, is a rebuttal to the Mayor’s dangerous ‘cornflake economics’ and underlines the structural inequality that exists in London and the actions that he can take to lower the barriers to success, which are outlined in the paragraphs that follow. 

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The evidence in my report shows that Londoners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds face barriers to success due to low pay; employment discrimination; food poverty; lack of appropriate childcare provision; high public transport fares; and high rents. A report by the Runnymede Trust for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community in 2012 found that 25% of the unemployment rate for Black and Asian men and women is a result of prejudice and direct discrimination. The report also found that BAME women face discrimination ‘at every stage of the recruitment process.’ London’s Poverty Profile shows that half of all people in poverty in London are from BAME backgrounds. 

Londoners with disabilities face barriers due to a smaller supply of suitable, accessible housing; cuts to disability allowances; food poverty; inaccessible public transport; lack of specialised childcare provision; and barriers to employment. This in turn, has forced many to turn to food banks and risk their health by cutting back on heating so they can afford the bills. According to the London Cost of Living Survey, 74% of disabled Londoners have cut back on heating their homes in order to afford their energy bills. 

Women face various barriers due to a lack of affordable childcare; low pay and low pensions; insecure employment contracts; public transport safety concerns; and widespread sexual discrimination. Once again, the Mayor falls short when addressing this inequality. Indeed, in February 2014, the Mayor claimed women are not ‘anywhere near’ achieving equal employment opportunities in the labour market, but that his own pool of advisers, in which ‘almost half’ of the staff are women, was an example of how things could be done. However, it turns out that only 4 of his 14 paid advisers are actually women (28%). 

The inequality story for young and older Londoners can also not just be dismissed as a result of, what the Mayor, in his speech, put down to, ‘natural and God-given talent’. Children and young people are facing barriers to success due to hunger impacting on their education; being forced to pay out high rents for accommodation; the cancellation of the education maintenance allowance; increased university tuition fees; and a lack of job opportunities. Meanwhile, elder Londoners are facing hardship due to high energy bills; malnutrition; and rising costs of everyday necessities. As highlighted in my report, it also appears that Londoners are retiring later than people in other parts of the UK with 11% of those aged 65 and over in work compared with the national average of 9.5%. In the North East, this figure is 6% (Source: ONS Annual Population Survey). 

The negative impact of the cost-of-living crisis extends to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, too. Those who identify as LGBT face societal discrimination which feeds into employment opportunities and, notably, housing. Due to a high risk of domestic abuse, LGBT Londoners who are victims of abuse also struggle from a lack of emergency accommodation in the city. Studies have also shown that the vast majority of homelessness services work with people who identify as LGBT. 

Whilst the Mayor takes economic advice from the back of his cereal box, my report suggests that Londoners across the city are suffering. I urge the Mayor to take steps to address this inequality to help those groups protected under the Equality Act 2010. I believe that action can be taken on these issues and that inequality is not inevitable. It is certainly not ‘essential’ as the Mayor suggests. Boris argues that vulnerable Londoners require inequality and envy to ‘shake’ them to the top, but it is he that needs to be shaken into action. The evidence and recommendations outlined in my report show that the barriers facing vulnerable groups are not ‘natural’, but structural, and it is time for the Mayor to recognise this and work to make London a city of equal opportunity for all, instead of a city of inevitable and, as he argues, justifiable inequality for the majority.

Jennette Arnold OBE AM has been a member of the London Assembly since 2000. Initially a London-wide member, since 2004 Jennette has represented the North East London constituency of Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest.  Jennette’s work focuses on the key strategic issues that impact directly on the lives of her constituents – improved transport services, crime reduction and affordable housing. She is also a champion in the fight against any form of injustice and discrimination.

Rebutting Boris’ cornflake economy of inevitable and justified inequality

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