It’s 6am on the South Wimbledon Business estate.
It’s dark, cold and there is trash everywhere. Hundreds of workers are stumbling out of the production plants, tired from their 12 hour shifts sorting vegetables, producing dairy products, and packaging takeaway drinks. They have made the food to feed London, and now they are ready for a meal of their own and some sleep. In 12 hours they go again.
At the same time, the last of the morning shift are hurrying to get to their spots on the production line so they don’t get next week’s shifts cancelled by their employment agency. These giant plants never sleep, because it’s cheaper to keep them running then to switch them on and off.
Inside, Eastern Europeans, South Asians, Africans and occasional Brits work the lines, the Goods In, and the Hygiene sections. There are divisions of labour across gender and race. There is suspicion and hostility between workers who stand side by side. But there is also a mutual fear and hatred of the managers, and there is the fact that these people of a dozen different languages and cultures are in the same shit together.
This is Mitcham, but it could be any of the industrial estates of outer London. The situation in the Midlands or Yorkshire isn’t that different. Much has been made of the mythical flat-cap-bacon-bap workers of Brexit, but when you look at the industries at the heart of the productive economy, this is what the modern day working class often looks like. They run the supply lines, the logistics chains and the food processing plants. Yet they are ignored by Corbynistas, Lexiteers and the inner-city Left.
We feel that any serious attempt to re-ignite class struggle in the UK will need to start by changing that. We hope that in some small way, in our small area, we can begin to re-engage with the class.
What is this project?
Croydon and Mitcham has got tens of thousands of workers packed into a small area of industrial estates. Here, they work long hours for low pay, under difficult conditions in a hostile immigration environment. Workers are likely to be demoralised, scared and suspicious. In many ways the situation is bleak.
But on the other hand, these same workers produce masses of food and plastics. They ferry around zillions of goods that are delivered just-in-time to online shoppers. They run the giant cash and carries that thousands of other production processes depend on. And the UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, is just down the road.
How do we understand this situation where the local workers possess huge collective power, yet are simultaneously divided and individually weak? Just how deep do their divisions run and where do they stem from? What level of struggle against exploitation already exists? Are there common demands or key places of struggle where a victory could lead to a chain reaction? And what methods and ideas could move that level of struggle forward by just one notch?
These are the questions at the heart of this project. We come from different political experiences, but we share the idea that ‘the Left’ in the UK is in a profound crisis. There is no revolutionary strategy, no attempts to build bases of class power and a damaging resurgence of faith in the parliamentary system. We share the feelings of The Angry Workers that a new conversation and a new set of practices are needed amongst those who sincerely wish to challenge the current state of play.
For the last 6 years, the Angry Workers have been up to their tricks in Wild West London. In this time they have had a rotating group of people working in the modern-day foundaries of our economy – sandwich plants, distribution centres, haulage companies and vegatable processors.
Whilst others have settled for Corbynism, written PHDs about workers or built paper unions, these types have gone back to the basics of communist struggle, and in their words ‘plugged’ in to the working class. We think this is fresh air in stale times.
We feel the pressing need for more projects like theirs: concerted attempts to understand what the modern working class looks like, how it is brought together yet divided by capital, and what the potentials are for struggles against the bosses.
We don’t know where our project will end up, or how much luck we will have in building confidence and relationships in the local working class. But in this huge city we hope to take responsibility for our corner, the Dirty South, and to at least engage with the local realities and problems that exist on these industrial estates.
This blog will be used to report on our progress month-by-month. We aim to use this to keep us accountable to our objectives, and hope that it may serve as one possible example of putting the Angry Workers’ proposal into action (watch this space). In addition to the blog, we plan to run an irregular newsletter for distribution on the ground in Croydon and Mitcham and to start running regular solidarity network meetings in the area.
Why Croydon? (And Mitcham…)
Geographically, Croydon is located on the outskirts of London, formerly as the business and administrative hub of Surrey, but now undoubteldy a large suburb of Greater London. The area is a major transport hub, with West Croydon, East Croydon (in the top 20 busiest train stations in UK), the Tramlink and various bus services. It is also the main entry point to East Sussex on the M25 and nearby to Gatwick Airport, Britain’s second busiest airport. This has shaped Croydon’s economic development towards logistics, wholesalers and warehousing.
Rents and property prices are relatively cheap compared to that of inner London boroughs. Nonetheless, affordable housing remains hard to come by, as Croydon launches Box Parks and eyes up new high end shopping centres. In a TimeOut article last year, Croydon was described as the ‘new Brixton’. Given the amount of people that have been displaced from Brixton over the past two decades, this should serve as a sign of the conflicts and pressures to come.
Croydon is perhaps better known, at least to the left and individuals seeking asylum or residency, as the location of UK Border Agency offices at Lunar House, where for several years various concotions of the far-right marched and assembled protected by the police from local residents and anti-fascist groups. However, Lunar House remains as a location where non-British nationals are often instructed to attend to face immigration officials and discover the outcome of applications, often with life changing outcomes. The result of this is that Croydon has a diverse population, consisting of recent arrivals to the UK and more entrenched communities, from eastern Europeans, to Africans, and those from the Middle East. There is also a sizeable white British population, especially in surrounding areas like New Addington.
For its part, the Council is trying to attract new investments and become more ‘business friendly’ as part of its ‘regeneration’ plan. It argues that this would bring employment and improved infastructure to the borough. But we have to ask ourselves who this will benefit and how. What do new office companies mean for the warehouse workers of Willow Lane or Purley Way? How will people adjust to the higher rent prices that increased capitalist investment in the borough brings? What will the impact be on community spaces? In all of this, we should be looking beyond vague claims of gentrification to understand the shifting economic role of croydon and implications for the class landscape.
These factors, and others, is what attracted us to Croydon. The significant transport links, diverse makeup of the working class, and of course the significant industries that exist there and are crucial to the smooth running of capitalist London (and further afield). The industrial estates we are interested in also spill over into Mitcham. We will be covering some of this region as well, and if we have the people power we might try and do more research into Mitcham, and industrial estates in South Wimbledon.
Who are we?
At the time of writing we are a small group of mates who are either from or have worked in Croydon and the neighbouring parts of South London. We work as cleaners, social workers and media workers. We hope to expand in the coming months, and would welcome help from anyone based in South London who can commit to a monthly or fortnightly visit to Croydon. Get in touch with us by emailing Croydonsolidarity@gmail.com
We had a general idea of the industrial areas in Croydon and Mitcham, and a glide through Google threw up plenty of workplaces in the logistics, distribution, manufacturing and retail/wholesale sectors. Some of these we knew from experiences in West London, in others, one of us has previously worked (though the owners of the machines have since changed, and the workforce has shifted from Poles to Romanians). Many were the generic names of companies that are intended to remain behind the scenes, away from the people who eat, or wear, or sell on their products.
If you’re not used to industrial estate life, it can be hard to know what a factory even looks like these days and of course we wanted to get a feel for what these areas are like on the ground. So this month we went on two research trips to start to answer some basic questions: What are the main transport links to this place? Are there locations that workers meet in outside of work, like cafes and rest stops? How concentrated are these workplaces? And of course who are the people that work there?
Day 1: Factory Lane to Purley Way
Veolia Refuse Collection. 2.4 stars on Google, “Bad, bad, bad, bad.”
D30, manufacturer of armour for cops and soldiers.
Viridor’s £220m state-of-the-art incinerator. “Nothing works how it should do inside.”
We started by walking along Factory Lane, which is about a 15min walk from West Croydon station (Overground, Trains, Buses). This whole area used to contain a lot of heavy industry, including plastics, aircraft and car manufacturing. However, much like the UK in general, this doesn’t have many factories anymore because they’ve been replaced by logistics and distribution hubs. Here you can see a massive Tesco Dark Store for online shopping, with mainly South Asian and Eastern European workers. We also came across a sizeable Royal Mail hub, (more English-born workers), a big Veolia waste depot, a gasworks and other waste and recycling hubs. The one ‘factory’ we did see produces Deliveroo-style takeaway boxes…
Cross over Purley Way, and you find the derelict Stewart plastics factory. Once a major plastics manufacturer, it now looks like a level from Call of Duty. It is due to be bulldozed and replaced with an equivalent modern building for rent to businesses. Next to here is the flagship Ikea store, which became Croydon’s fifth biggest employer when it opened. It occupies the massive former power station that left behind massive unemployment when it closed… As with other industrial areas around London, we can see here the shipwrecks of past phases of Capitalism, even as they are taken apart or reclaimed by the phases that follow.
Stretching South, West and North of here is one of the two main industrial areas we plan to focus on. It has multiple huge cash and carry stores like BestBuy, Makro and Costco, some specialist manufacturing and a number of substantial logistics depots including DHL, DPD, UPS (1.7 stars on Google) and Kugne and Negel (a company that transported stolen Jewish property around Europe during the Holocaust, but is now worth £15bn).
We’re not yet sure of the social reproduction side of this local working class, and how far people live from these workplaces. We did however come across Croydon’s only traveller site, right in the middle of this industrial corridor and we came across some weird bits like a pub hosting a gig by IRA fanboys The Wolfe Tones, and a massive gaming arcade sandwiched between a car welder and display set designer. There are a couple of roadside cafs servicing some of the large depots and the area also has a big shopping centre and outlet area (Sainsbury’s Sophology, TK Max etc).
You can smell the Beddington Sewage works across much of this part of town, there is mess everywhere and it looks bleak. We look forward to getting to know the area a bit better.
Day 2: Mitcham and South Wimbledon.
Composite Plastics – “333 days since last accident.”
Hovis – “Shit” – local worker
We started off on the outskirts of the Purley Way industrial areas, visiting Beddington Lane Industrial Estate. There was a small SIG logistics depot, and several other warehouses. These didn’t look particularly promising, in the sense that we didn’t think too many people could work in them and that they were probably used for storage and admin. Speaking to a couple of workers in the smoking area, it turned out that just one of these has about 200 workers and is a cosmetics manufacturer. The machinery is on the ground floor and packaging is on the first floor – which is how a lot of these modern factories are laid out. Another business here is a Japanese food wholesaler. Together with a sister branch in Dusseldorf, Germany, it supplies 300 businesses across Europe, from Iceland to Romania. Near here was also found a run-down, 24 hour TNT depot. One of us who’s worked the night shifts around here points out that these are often the very worst places. When you’re with an agency and you turn up at a place like this, your heart sinks. Hidden far away from public view, all sorts of cowboy stuff can happen here. Building workers power in such places often has to start from something like sorting a clean place to use the toilet, because that’s what you want most on a double nightshift.
Next up we moved over to Willow Lane in Eastern Mitcham. (5min walk from Mitcham Junction, with trains to Victoria, tram to Wimbledon, buses). This is a mammoth industrial estate divided into five zones that are designated with different colours. It is incredibly dirty and some of the buildings look like they haven’t been modernised since the 1940s, but they still function every day. Here we found a lot of manufacturing, further logistics and food production places. One factory that turns Chinese chickens into sandwich fillings was swarming with clouds of flies outside. A fairly large chemical plant had an electronic sign outside that said, “Days since last accident: 333” we’re gonna keep an eye on that one… At the Hovis plant, a worker we spoke to gave a one word review of the conditions inside, whilst at the plastics factory across the road, the workers were a bit more wary of chatting. In the middle of the big estate was a large building housing a congregation of an Islamic demomination, and there were other religious spaces Squeezed in between the factories and pollution.
For a bit of bonus exploring, we headed up to the South Wimbledon Industrial Estate. This place is much smaller than either Willow Lane or the main areas around Purley Way. However the 4 or 5 factories here are each enormous, producing various food stuffs, hair extensions and handling logistics. There’s also a local Amazon Prime depot where delivery drivers rush in and out. A lone burger van stands in the middle, valiantly selling hot dogs and burgers to the local workers who then go and produce more hot dogs and burgers. For the time being, we won’t be covering this area because we don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin. But the advantage here is that this place really isn’t that far out. It’s a 10 min walk to South Wimbledon tube, which has the Northern Line getting you to Tooting, Balham, etc. South West radicals, this is a nice one for you!
So that’s a taste of what we’ve found so far. This coming month we are going to be speaking to friends and curious South Londoners to see who we can get on board, as well as doing our first targetted visits to some of the workplaces we scouted out this month. If you’re the kind of person who A) has read this hastily-written blogpost to the end and B) fancies getting up at the arse crack of dawn in February to help flyer a Croydon industrial wasteland then we wanna hear from you. Get in touch, there’s work to do!