Bow Match Women Strike Anniversary

Here is my speech on Tuesday 8 October 2013 in the debate on the 125th Anniversary of the strike by women at the Bryant and May Match factory in Bow and it's lessons for today.


11.48 am

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):

May I begin with a personal reflection, which I find quite difficult? In 2007, my late daughter played the character Louie in “The Matchgirls” play that was put on by a community association. She had to have stitched to her head a piece of cloth to give the impression of an 11-year-old girl whose hair had fallen out because of the work that she was doing in the Bryant & May factory. I have always been struck by that image and the passion in the performance that was put on by those young people. That image has come back to me during this debate. I did not want to refer to it, but I feel I have to.

Lyn Brown:

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Gapes:

No, I want to carry on. Anyone who has an image of what that factory was like, whether from photographs or from their imagination from reading the stories, will know about the working conditions of women not just in the Bryant & May factories, but throughout the Victorian era during the industrial revolution. Anyone who reads Friedrich Engels’s work about the conditions of workers in Manchester—it was published not when it was written in 1844, but about 40 years later—will know about the conditions of millions of people in this country who built our great cities and our industrial revolution, which made us the workshop of the world, as was demonstrated in the great exhibition of 1851. Britain grew economically and prospered on the backs of those giants—the men and women who built the industrial revolution—but they did not benefit from it. Their work was casual, erratic and not permanent. They did not have pensions or benefit from health and safety legislation and there was no sick pay. They were on what are now called zero-hours contracts, but in most cases they had no contracts. They were dismissed at will, abused, exploited, sexually harassed and treated appallingly by some more senior workers and their employers.

If we are honest—this is topical—we face today a race to the bottom. The ideology of the Government, including the Liberal Democrats who are in up to their necks, is based on a view that we must compete globally by reducing working conditions in this country so that we can be more competitive with our European neighbours, and that Europe must reduce working and living standards to be competitive with the Asian economies that are rapidly industrialising and taking on manufacturing for the world.

Yesterday, I watched an interesting programme on television about the largest container vessel ever built. It is so large that things must be removed so that it is not too high in the water and can go under bridges. It cannot dock in many places. It comes from China fully laden and goes back three quarters empty because we are exporting only our waste products and some specialised equipment, and I am talking not just about Britain. The programme highlighted our massive trade deficit of billions of pounds every month. We import from countries where men, women and children are exploited. In China today and many of its cities the treatment of workers is comparable with the treatment that men and women in this country experienced in the 19th century.

When we talk about health and safety, and the protection of workers, it is important to take a global perspective. I am an internationalist and a socialist, and I believe in internationalist and universalist values. It is time that we left the parochial debate about the situation in this country and raised issues relating to the rights and duties of global companies that do not pay tax in this country and manufacture goods in other countries. They work cleverly so that certain large global corporations have far more power and influence than individual states, even the most powerful states.

I will not digress, but that is why we need international co-operation and a strong European Union that can defend the European social model, stand up against the global multinationals, and work within the International Labour Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the treaties that we signed with Korea, the United States and other parts of the world for trade and international co-operation. That should be not a race to the bottom, which is the agenda of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but a race to protect and raise the living standards of people in the countries that we trade with around the world. That is an argument not for protectionism, but for modern, effective regulation and globalisation. In this century, we cannot live on the basis of total deregulation and a race to the bottom. The values of the women in Bryant & May’s factory 125 years ago are exactly the same that we should argue for today to protect the women in factories in China and elsewhere who are working in conditions that are comparable with what those women were working in.

We have talked about trade unionism in Britain. Trade Unions do not organise enough people in this country. Millions of women work as cleaners and carers in low-paid, casual jobs. On the radio this morning, a lady said that if there is a traffic jam she cannot do her job when she visits the elderly people she cares for because she runs late with resulting pressure. That applies particularly in the care industry. We can do something about that in this country because contractualisation, privatisation, deregulation and zero-hours contracts are a race to the bottom. We must do better, and we must all recognise that that will involve a change in our attitude to the lowest paid people in our country.

We have a national minimum wage. It was a great achievement of the last Labour Government, but it is not high enough. It is impossible to live on the minimum wage in London. We need a London living wage and we need it to be enforced. Let people be prosecuted for failing to pay the minimum wage. Let the Daily Mail and the Daily Express show pictures of those who are guilty of not standing up for British values of fairness, justice and fair pay for men and women. That is what we need in this country today, not the poison that comes from our tabloid press.

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