There was a disproportionately large police presence last Saturday at the United Voices of the World demonstration at Harrods Department Store. The protest was called in support of 450 waiters and chefs demanding they receive 100 per cent of their tips from customers, rather than the 25 per cent they are currently receiving, which reduces the salary of each member of staff by up to £5,000 per year. To put this in context, this theft of up to 75 per cent of staff tips by management comes in a year when Harrods announced that their pre-tax profits for 2015-16 had increased by 19 percent to £168 million, sales had risen by 4 per cent to £1.4 billion, and the owners had just paid themselves a juicy £100.1 million dividend. Architects for Social Housing turned up in support of this protest, as did members of Class War, while the Left – whether in the form of other unions like Unite, the Corbyn support group Momentum, or the various Trotskyist factions such as the Socialist Workers Party – were conspicuously if unsurprisingly absent: the UVW being unaffiliated to the Labour Party and therefore beyond the bounds of its control. Despite this, the protest was well attended and conducted peacefully and in good humour, stopping the traffic several times with the giant blow-up banner, but letting people pass freely along the pavement, and we were generally well received by passers-by, with none of the well-heeled patrons taking excessive umbrage at having to enter the Harrod’s Sale by the side doors.
The only violence – as at every demonstration I have attended over the past few years – came from the Metropolitan Police Force, whose numbers grew rapidly throughout the protest. Large numbers of police vans were parked up and down the Brompton Road and along its side streets; several police camera crews filmed everyone attending from both inside and outside the department store; and eventually even riot police from the Territorial Support Group turned up – completely unnecessarily. The police attempted to bully and intimidate us from the beginning, pushing us around, fencing us in and trying to kettle us in groups. A young lad was arrested right at the beginning for letting off a red smoke flare – although what possible harm that could do to anyone beyond adding a bit of theatre to the proceedings isn’t apparent; and a middle-aged woman was arrested for alleged ‘criminal damage’ – which, when she resisted, was upgraded to ‘assaulting a police constable’ – a charge the MET hands out like confetti these days. I spoke on behalf of ASH in formal support of the UVW protest and immediately became the object of police attention to the extent that I felt I too was about to be arrested, with cameras trained on me as I walked around and much finger-pointing and notebook-scribbling by the blue-shouldered officers. Having been arrested at a demonstration last year on a similarly manufactured charge of Assault PC (a charge dropped when video evidence showed the constable assaulting me), I recognised the signs and judged it best to leave the demonstration a little early if I didn’t want to join my fellow protesters in the local nick.
Because of this, I didn’t see the subsequent arrests as the police moved in at the end of the protest, around 4pm, and arrested a further 6 people, including the General Secretary of the union, Petros Elia. Without any proof being produced, Petros was held for 17 hours in Belgravia Police Station along with 5 other protesters, then released on Sunday without charge. His bail conditions, however, as with the other protesters arrested, include prohibiting him from coming within 50 yards of Harrods, effectively precluding him from taking part in any further demonstrations by the union. Even in the long and shameful history of the UK’s industrial disputes, I can’t recall another instance of the General Secretary of a union being prohibited by the police force from approaching the company with which the union he represents is in industrial dispute. Apart from the police abusing their powers of arrest and bail to influence the course of industrial action, all of this contravenes our rights as citizens to move freely (article 5), our freedom of expression (article 10), and our freedom of assembly (article 11), under the European Convention on Human Rights; but then the police have been abusing these rights as a matter of practice for some time now without the need to change the law, as Theresa May will when she introduces the British Bill of Rights.
In reality, though – which is to say, our present reality in the UK – none of this should be surprising, since the Qatar Investment Authority that owns Harrods owns more of London than the Crown Estate, with around £30 billion worth of investments out of an estimated £275 billion in assets worldwide. A sovereign wealth fund set up to manage the surpluses from Qatar’s oil and natural gas reserves – currently the third largest in the world – in practical terms the QIA is the piggy bank of the Al Thani royal family, with the current CEO (who is also a member of the royal family) having been appointed by the Emir of Qatar. Besides its extensive foreign investments, the QIA also profits from the enslavement of millions of workers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in abject living conditions (below) in Qatar’s building industry. The International Trade Union Confederation has predicted that 7,000 construction workers will die on building sites in preparation for the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar, where 1.8 million migrant workers are kept in conditions of semi-slavery, with pay withheld, with their passports confiscated, living in work camps and labouring in 50 degree heat. In contrast to which, Qatar’s 278,000 citizens have the highest per capita income in the world.
The Qatar Investment Authority bought the Harrods Group for £2 billion in 2010, and since then has invested heavily in London real estate, acquiring the Shard, three 5-star London hotels (Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Connaught), Burberry’s Department Store, the Olympic Village (for which the Clays Lane Estate in Newham was demolished), the US Embassy (which it plans to turn into another luxury hotel), Chelsea Barracks (which it is redeveloping into luxury housing), 1-3 Cornwall Terrace (which it plans to turn into a royal palace for the Al Thani family), the Shell Centre, One Hyde Park, £1 billion and 279 acres of residential property in Mayfair, Camden Market and the whole of Canary Wharf; and its property development company, Qatari Diar, is expanding its portfolio to manage over 4,000 homes in London. The QIA also has substantial shares in Barclays Bank (with which it has twice been investigated and fined by the Serious Fraud Squad), Sainsbury’s Supermarkets, the International Airlines Group (which owns British Airways), Heathrow Airport and the London Stock Exchange.
It is hard to believe – it would be naïve to do so – that it was not under the instruction of this ruthless and immensely influential financial power with a huge presence in London that the Metropolitan Police Force arrested the General Secretary of United Voices of the World at Saturday’s demonstration. The aggressive and heavy-handed police presence at the demonstration was clearly a crude attempt to stamp out the unionisation of the Harrods workers by the UVW and their just demands for all of their tips; and the arrests of their leadership and other members is equally clearly an attempt to bully, intimidate, harass, dissuade and criminalise further union action. This demonstration was reported in advance in papers around the world, and had huge coverage in the UK leading up to Saturday; yet the following day every paper, including The Guardian, The Mirror, The Mail, The Independent and The Telegraph, as well as the reliably biased BBC, reported gleefully on the first two arrests but failed to mention the arrest of the General Secretary of United Voices of the World (the honourable exception to this censorship was The Morning Star). It’s a genuine question: would the UK, were it to apply for re-entry into the European Union, be rejected on the grounds that our police force, national press and elected government fail the requirements of the Democracy Index by repeatedly demonstrating themselves to be the instruments of corporate interest?
When ASH talks about the social cleansing of London we mean not just the forced eviction of the working class from our council estates and the replacement of their homes with investment opportunities for vehicles like the Qatar Investment Authority; we also mean the replacement of that class with a migrant workforce which, like many of the staff at Harrods, are employed on zero hours contracts, on the minimum wage, without unionisation, and who have to commute to work on long journeys from the outer boroughs of London. What is driving social cleansing is not only the enormous financial profits to be made from redeveloping land in Inner London, but the resulting demographic shift that is driving London further and further towards a Parisian model of the city, with a centre for the international rich surrounded by a suburban ring of service industry workers drawn from a largely migrant population. And we saw in 2016 how that social contract is working out.
It should also not surprise us to learn that several protesters, who were arrested later that evening, were initially detained by Harrods security guards in cells they keep for suspected shoplifters located in the basement of the department store. It seems the Qatar royal family not only regards Harrods as part of its private emirate, but believes that British citizens on its property are subject to the same laws under which they keep 1.8 million workers enslaved in Qatar – and judging by the actions of the MET on Saturday they’re right. The use of our police force to break union action and demonstrations, and the increase in their powers of surveillance and arrest under the cloak of protecting us from terrorism, is part of a vast project of social engineering that is transforming every aspect of our public and private lives in the UK, and of which the demolition of our social housing for foreign investment is only one campaign. It is for this reason that ASH has been publicising, supporting and reporting on this struggle by UVW. ‘The workers united will never be defeated’ – a phrase we used at the demonstration – is not just a nostalgic chant, it’s a political imperative; and if we don’t want to see London socially cleansed and replaced with the working conditions, employment practices and class relations being imported from totalitarian states like Qatar, we’d better take up its call now. Architects for Social Housing stands in solidarity with United Voices of the World in our shared struggle to oppose the forces of our economic, political and legal subjugation in 2017.
Architects for Social Housing