Crisis of family and friends: Working class experiences from west London

In warehouses, factories and other low-paid workplaces in west London we’ve had various conversations with fellow workers about how they live. We've also had experiences at home, where we flat-share with other workers from different countries. Facing the breakdown of the family and various forms of personal crisis we thought of writing an article about it for our paper, WorkersWildWest. Please feel free to criticise and contribute!

Submitted by AngryWorkersWorld on April 3, 2016

The crisis of the family as a way to live together and bring up kids is nothing new. Working class families have always been portrayed as chaotic (missing dads, single/teenage mums, feral kids), but with the housing crisis and austerity things have become harder and workers are forced into new, and often more difficult, living arrangements. We present some thoughts below.

It is no coincidence that most of the women we work with are either under 30 years of age or above 40. Many young, working class mothers still temporarily drop out of waged work. Therefore this article lacks deeper insight into the working conditions within local reproductive work: the situation of local nurseries or other childcare facilities, the problems of migrant workers in getting access to child-related benefits. We merely watch mums from Poland, Pakistan and Somalia sharing the playground in our local park, but we know little about their actual interactions. We will focus more on this question in future…

*** These are some common experiences of our colleagues’ personal or family lives:

Female worker: She and her husband live in a small double room in Southall. She works day shifts in a distribution centre, he works 12-hour night-shifts in a vegetable warehouse, cash in hand because he is here ‘illegally’. Their five-year-old daughter is with her grandparents in Punjab, India. They haven’t seen her in three years. Their visa application is pending. Even though they would have a quite middle class life in India if they went back, the woman does not want to go back because she has 'more freedom' here. They have recently had another baby, now the three of them share their 9 square-metre room. She cannot claim maternity leave because her visa status means that she shouldn’t really be working.

Female worker: She works in a warehouse, her husband works, too. Their four-year-old son spent a year or two with his grandparents in Poland. They decided to bring him here to the UK, but due to lack of childcare the grandmother also came over. She does not speak English and the daughter-in-law is unhappy about ‘living too close together’.

Male worker: After splitting up with his wife he had to sell the house and moved back in with his parents, who are both over 70 years old. He says that private rents are too high for a minimum wage sweeper job and his parents need help every now and then.

Female worker: “We advertised a room for rent in our flat in Greenford. Every second call came from parents with a young child or baby who were looking for single-room/shared flat accommodation. Our flatmates didn’t want a screaming baby keeping them awake when they do shift-work so we had to say no to them…”

Male worker: He and his partner share a room in a flat with five, six other people. She works day shifts in a food factory, he works night shifts in a warehouse. After work he smokes weed to wind down. This and the lack of sleep leads to a psychotic breakdown. They go to A&E, but all they are given are sleeping pills. He doesn’t get sick pay, so the partner continues working, although he needs care and cannot leave the room. After a week his father comes from Hungary and stays with them for two weeks to take his son out for walks and to the gym.

Male worker: “For two months I worked in refuse collection and street-sweeping teams in Ealing. As a temp you are frequently switched from one team to the other, so you speak to many people. Out of the 40 or so men I worked with, aged 20 to 60, all but three or four of them had split up with the mother of their children and around a quarter of them had lost touch with their children. Some blokes mentioned injunctions against them and isolated incidences of violence, although they always say they were never really to blame.”

Male worker: He and his partner came from Hungary, they have a daughter. After two years in England she wanted to split up with him for reasons he didn’t want to disclose - he said that she found “an English bloke”. He continued texting her, going to her place, harassing her. Her brother wanted to stop him and in the argument he beat up her brother. The ex-partner filed a case for harassment and domestic violence. He is not allowed to see her or the daughter.

Male worker: He said his ex-wife changed after they they had an arranged marriage in India and she had moved over to England. She has turned his whole family, including his mother against him, telling them he had been abusive towards her. He can't see his kid and it's all because she is secretly having an affair with a family friend. When I asked him whether he had any proof, he mumbled something about seeing them talking. He said he's been depressed for two years, “the bitch” ruined his life, he's doing a shit job, his life has been “a living hell”.

Female worker: “I live in a shared flat. There are three couples living in three rooms, but we keep to ourselves. Most of us are not on the rent contract, so we wouldn't be able to claim housing benefit if we lost our jobs. The lack of space can be annoying, in particular in the small kitchen and waiting in front of an occupied bathroom. So you try and give each other some space. That goes so far that the boundary between ‘giving each other space’ and ‘ignoring each other’ becomes blurry. So when I hear arguments coming from the room next door I am not sure how best to intervene. The guy seems to bully his partner, I once heard him shouting and hitting her. I asked her about it afterwards, but she said that everything was fine. Her English and job prospects are worse than his. She also stays in her room a lot, alone, waiting for him to come home. So she seems pretty dependent on him, financially and emotionally. Having to share a room and the isolation from others (even in a shared flat) means that it would take a major leap on her part to escape."

Male worker: When the crisis hit Spain he left to work in Holland, where he lived on his own for three years. When the job in an airport warehouse ended he came to live with his (Spanish) mother and (Pakistani) stepfather in London. The minimum wage job does not allow him to rent his own flat. Shortly after his arrival his step-dad's younger brother, wife and two children moved in. Both the step-dad and his brother work as cab drivers, their wives do the house work and childcare. Initially they stayed as family guests, but then they didn’t find an affordable flat to move out to. Since then arguments are in the air about 'who works how much', 'who uses how much gas and electricity', 'who pays for the bills'. The expectations and obligations around helping out your family are put under strain with the low-wage London life.

Male worker: "I worked with S., a white-British guy in the street-cleansing depot. He is in his 50s and shares a room with a friend; they both used to work as plumbers in the Dominican Republic tourism sector. At work he made friends with M., a worker from Somalia, who was looking for a place to stay. When a room became available at S.'s flat he arranged a meeting between M. and the landlord. When the landlord met 'the African Muslim man', the room was suddenly "already taken".

Female worker: Four of us in our flat work on different shifts and days in the week. It was a hassle to go shopping individually, to store stuff individually, to cook your little meals for yourself. We found an arrangement where everyone pays £20 per week into a food kitty. We now share the cooking and tend to eat together more often. Instead of every day, you now only have to cook every third or fourth day. We also save money like this. It took some time to find out what each of us likes to eat and so on, but that was no big deal.

*** These are some general thoughts and figures regarding the ‘crisis’ of working class families:

Fifteen, twenty years ago, (migrant) manual workers in this area could earn enough to get on the housing ladder or at the very least, save money whilst not living in too shitty and overpriced a room. This is no longer possible, although the dream is still alive and kicking. At least initially. Younger people now coming over are stuck in the trap of no benefit entitlements, minimum wages, no career ‘advancement’, and nothing better to go back to. Family life has to continue within this context - whether that is being stuck in crap relationships (it is easier as a couple to save money on rent etc.), having children in single bedrooms or finding new living and childcare arrangements.

* Although for many people the ‘couple relationship’ or marriage is the most important relationship, it is increasingly unstable

Jobs are stressful and time consuming, we change our jobs more frequently and have to move house more often. All this puts an enormous strain on friendships in general. People have fewer close friends today than they had 15, 20 years ago. In a recent study one in eight questioned men said that they have no close friends at all, which equates to 2.5 million men in the UK. Strikingly, married men are twice as likely to have no friends than unmarried men. For them the family becomes the main arena of emotional life. At the same time the family and marriages themselves become more fragile. According to figures from the Office of National Statistics from 2013 around 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. This figure is considerably higher for working class families. Compared to previous decades divorce rates have increased: 22% of marriages in 1970 had ended in divorce by the 15th wedding anniversary, whereas 33% of marriages in 1995 had ended after the same period of time. The average length of a marriage in Britain is now 11.3 years. Divorce rates have fallen slightly since the economic crisis, which indicates that more people ‘stick it out’ under, we assume 'economic imperatives', but even the re-introduction of Marriage Allowance (a way to save taxes for couples) by the Conservative government hasn’t changed the general picture much. Families and couple relationships are overburdened both economically (lack of space, financial tension) and emotionally - men (more than women) expect that the partner alone takes care of all emotional needs.

* For many women the family is a dangerous battlefield

In a world where people have less and less time for friendships and the general social environment is cold and anonymous, 'romantic love' and family are seen as a 'safe haven'. It is impossible for any 'love relationship' to bear all the emotional pressure and needs, nevertheless, if needs are not met it is seen as a personal failure. People blame each other. Family and romantic partnerships are also one of the few places where working class men can feel that they are not the lowest of the low – they have at least one person ‘below them’. The crisis of working class confidence and community (the destruction of big industry, trade unions, solidarity) has been privatised as a ‘masculinity crisis’ within the working class (depression, more drug-related problems, violence). The social tension escalates at home.

The home is still the most likely place for women to get raped, injured or murdered. While the media largely still focuses on the 'violent stranger in the dark alleyway' (even better if they are from a migrant background like the case at new years in Cologne), in most cases the aggressor is a partner, 'friend' or relative: only 7% of reported rapes in London are carried out by strangers. A report from 2015 notes a 31% increase in "domestic abuse related crimes" recorded by police - from 269,700 in the year to August 2013, to 353,100 in the year to March 2015 - although whether this is because of increased prevalence or increased reporting is debatable. In the UK around 1/3 of women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. This amounts to 5 million women. Every week two women in England and Wales die as a result of domestic violence. Cases of violence often increase during pregnancy or after childbirth, indicating a relationship between an increase of (economic, personal) stress and violent acts. It also supports the idea of men's uni-focus on their partner for their emotional needs, as this is undermined when the woman's attention now has to be shared with another (small) person. This jealousy is an important factor in violent relationships.

Overcrowding and low incomes means that in a personal crisis working class couples can't just 'give each other some space', which means that things can escalate more easily and chances for escape become more difficult. Also there is no space in refuges because of the funding crisis so there might literally be nowhere for women to go. In England there are around 10,000 migration journeys a year, across local authority boundaries to access domestic abuse services. A study by a women’s refuge organisation of 140 refuges stated that on just one day in 2014, 112 women and their 84 children were turned away from refuge services because of lack of space.

The other victims of the family battle are children. Local authorities in England looked after 68,110 children (at the end of March 2013), the highest level for 20 years. This is partly because of a rapid rise in the number of children being taken into care following the widely reported abuse and death of ‘Baby P’ in 2007. And partly perhaps because of an increase in cases of abuse or neglect, which account for nearly two thirds of children in care (62%).

We are in a fix. In many situations, the only force that would intervene in an abusive situation - in case of violence against women or children - is the state, the cops, social services. We cannot preach ‘right to privacy’ in situations where this ‘privacy’ becomes a hiding screen for shit going on. At the same time the state and its institutions are brutal abusers towards working class people: look at the lives in prisons, detentions centres, kids’ homes etc.! It is up to us - neighbours, co-workers- friends - to intervene!

* We're not crying about the ‘family crisis’…

The ‘crisis of the family’ is not only a sign of general external pressure on relationships. It is also an expression of working class women having a) gained some economic independence and b) the confidence, resources and alternatives to leave a partnership. A recent study states that in 2015 around 1/3 of all employed women in the UK were the main breadwinner in their family - this includes single parent households. Between 1971 and 2008 women’s employment rate in the UK increased from 59% to 70% (whilst men’s fell from 95% to 79%). Since the onset of the recent crisis in 2008 women’s employment rate increased further, while men’s declined - mainly because the share of part-time work increased compared to full-time and women are more likely to work part-time. Also, many male colleagues insinuate that women leave marriages ‘in order to get the house’ or gain materially otherwise. This is generally untrue. While 66% of divorces were on petition of the wife, women lose out economically after splitting up: in 2009 the decrease in available income following divorce was 7.32% for men and 23.66% for women.

…but being alone is no alternative

For both men and women ‘breaking up’ or leaving a partnership is less stigmatised today than 30 years ago. We are not forced to stay in a relationship because society would morally exclude us - although there are still considerable differences within the working class in the UK today when it comes to this issue. The family cannot compensate for social loneliness, in fact it often aggravates social isolation: “let’s stay in and watch Netflix, instead of going out, meeting others”. The pubs are too expensive anyway. Personal tension can hide behind the walls of the 'private home', which makes it more difficult for working class women to resist abuse. This is why we're not crying over the crisis of family. But then, being alone or bringing kids up alone is hard, and more and more of us struggle through life alone – this is no alternative. The proportion of adults living alone almost doubled between 1973 and 2011 (9% and 16%), with the increase occurring in the first thirty years (between 1973 and 1998). The increase in single adult households has been amongst adults aged 25-44; adults in this age group were five times more likely to live alone in 2011 (10%) than in 1973 (2%). At the same time, since 2008 we've seen an increase of working adults living with their parents - see below.

* Household patterns diverge within the working class: living with grandparents is largely a family structure of more established migrant workers families, often compensating for difficulties in finding adequate childcare.

In 2009, more than one quarter of Indian families lived with their children’s paternal grandparents, and over 30% of Indian grandparents live in a multi-generational household. One in ten black Caribbean families live with their maternal grandparents. Overall, adult working class women are twice as likely to be active grandmothers (taking over childcare etc.) compared to their middle class counterparts. In turn, having grandmothers around often becomes a precondition for being able to juggle work and childcare: 20% of mothers with children aged under four who have mothers to help with childcare work full-time compared with 6% of those without mothers.

* The most prevalent form in which the crisis of the family expresses itself in the UK is an increase of lone parents, who are predominantly working class women:

As a result of the family crisis, many working class people in the UK don’t grow up in ‘traditional families’. In 2010-11, one third of all children aged 16 and under were not living with both of their birth parents. In a study from 2013, 29% of resident parents said that their child never sees their other parent, and 20% of all resident parents said that their child has not seen their other parent since separation. In 2013 almost 25% of families in the UK were lone, single-parent families. The proportion of single parents who were fathers has stayed at 9% for over ten years. Similarly to the phenomena of married men having less friends than unmarried men, single-parenting women often actually have a better support network than married women: the necessity to rely on others means they can actually be less isolated.

When working class parents split up the whole household is put under economic strain. The state tried to avoid having to support lone single parents by encouraging ‘private arrangements’ in terms of maintenance payments, meaning, raising money from ex-partners.This failed and the responsibility was handed over to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In the end it is mainly working class women as the main carers who lose out. Currently, less than half (38%) of single parents receive child maintenance. In 1991, the Child Support Agency (CSA) was introduced in order to increase the maintenance collected from non-resident parents and, in turn, reduce the amount of benefits paid to lone single parents. But the levels of maintenance payments raised from ex-partners remained low. Thus, from November 2013 the CSA ceased to exist. The state now tries to intertwine the issue of child maintenance payments with the DWP, hoping that the DWP has more authority over working class people to enforce payments and push stressed mothers to look for low-paid jobs. In 2016, the main responsibility for child maintenance is with the DWP. It is estimated that the DWP spent approximately 56 pence for each £1 collected on behalf of parents to keep the system running: a bureaucracy that serves itself.

* If women were not working class before becoming single parents, the lack of childcare opportunities and the pressure to take low-paid jobs will most likely push them into poverty

Amongst our colleagues you still hear some – mostly older, if not demented – voices saying that the best way for working class women to have an easy life in benefit paradise is to become a single parent. Statistics show that these colleagues must live on a different planet. Over two-thirds of single parents enter the three lowest-paid occupation groups. Although 64.4% of single parents are in work, nearly half of children in single parent families live in relative poverty, around twice the risk of relative poverty faced by children in couple families (24%). Approximately 75% of single parents in work with younger children (under 6 years old) work part-time - mainly due to lack of adequate childcare.

As part of the general austerity measures against the working class there have been special measures targeting single parents – often accompanied by media propaganda against “prole teenage mums”. The upper classes have always portrayed us as sexually driven, irresponsible, lazy – in order to explain why we are poor and have to accept their disciplinary measures! The number of single parent income support claimants has been falling steadily for over a decade, though this accelerated since 2009 after the introduction of Lone Parent Obligations. Since then numbers have fallen by a third. There have been various other changes affecting single parents recently: since September 2011 it is more difficult for single parents to get into further education, as they are not eligible for fee remissions. Since May 2012 single parents of kids over five years of age don’t get income support (IS), but have to go to the job centre and claim JSA – with all the hassle and harassment attached. Single parents can claim 70% of childcare costs up to £175 per week for one child and up to £300 per week for two or more children if they are working 16 or more hours. Prior to April 2011, it was possible to claim up to 80% via working tax credits. This was reduced to the current level of 70%. Nurseries are closing and after-school clubs get more expensive: in London over the last Parliament prices have increased by almost 33%.A family paying for this type of care now spends £1,533 more this year than they did in 2010, while wages have remained largely static. On average it costs £283.66 for full-time (50 hours) childcare in London. Full time, weekly, minimum waged work in London is £288 (before tax). Under these conditions the individual's decision to have kids becomes an enormous ‘calculating’ business and pressure.

* While the family is overstretched by economic and social pressures, the economic crisis and the state’s austerity measures push more people back into the family: the result are personal tragedies

We all know what’s happening: Many adults cannot move out of their parental home because of rental and housing prices: 3.3 million working adults aged 20 to 34 were living with their parents in 2013, an all-time record. The state is scrapping housing benefit for people under 25 as an austerity measure. The government is discussing limiting child tax benefit to two kids, pushing families with more children into destitution. The state cuts funds for shelters for victims of domestic violence, making it more difficult to get away from a family crisis. The bedroom tax makes it more difficult for adult children to stay with their elderly parents in case of temporary care need or in case of an emergency. Increasing care home prices mean that more old people are cared for at home, putting an extra burden on an already overstretched family structure. We all know the stories of ‘family tragedies’: the mass deaths of elderly people as a result of neglect or the increase in violence against children.

* The state cuts our social wage (nursery places, elderly care homes etc.) and wants social peace: for the state, the family is a guarantee that working class people fend for themselves or kill themselves, instead of attacking the rich and powerful

After the London riots in 2011 all the politicians cried out that the angry youth was lacking parental authority and therefore hit out. They might have a point - often working class parents disciplined their kids to become ‘good workers’ and not cause trouble, being dependent on their future contribution to the family income. The ruling class lament the lack of parental control, but they have no alternative. Their system destroys the fundament of the family, while preaching family values at the same time. Some advise us to just re-discover traditional family values and stick it out, ignoring all material reasons for why things are shit. Some say that ‘a modern woman’ can easily juggle childcare and work on her own and the state puts more pressure on single mums to get into (over-) work. Some propose ‘patch-work’ solutions (get a nanny, ask your new partner to work part-time), which are only viable for middle-class families with more time, space and money. We have to develop our own alternatives!

*** These are our modest ideas on alternatives:

If ‘romantic love’ doesn’t last and usually ends in ‘break-up’ which destroys the friendship; if the family increasingly becomes a bad version of ‘big brother’; if we are often forced to share flats with friends or strangers; if many of our neighbours or work-mates have similar problems in their families… then we can raise the ‘family crisis’ as a general problem all of us are facing.

One of the main dividing lines within the working class is between men and women. All the talk about ‘romantic love’ is prone to fail and end up in becoming each other’s control-freaks. Men and women have to learn to become friends first of all, on equal terms. We – in particular men – also have to learn to trust other people with our emotional shit. Male colleagues often pretend that everything is cool, that they're tough dudes, while at home they cry into their bottle or take it out on family members.

Another indicator for the crisis of the family is the rise of the ‘community’: people look for material and emotional support in religious groups, nationalist organisations and so on. Most of these communities are based on clear hierarchies: you will only get support unless you accept and work for the leaders. If you don’t obey their rules, you will get punished or ousted. This is no alternative for freedom-seeking working class people!

If you share a flat and hear domestic violence or abuse going on, if your work-mate tells you about trouble at home, get involved. We know that this is easier said than done, but we - as exploited and oppressed people - have to learn to trust each other. We cannot delegate our problems to anyone else.

Here in west London we often live in flat-share situations. Many working class people rip off other working class people by making extra money by sub-letting. They get 30 or 40 quid per month out of it, but the relationships between flatmates are spoilt. Those who ‘pay more’ will treat the others as those who ‘have to provide or do more’. Open the books and organise the household together!

The only alternative to the family and repressive ‘communities’ are wider friendship circles in which we support each other and share daily house and care work as equals. Friendships need time and space, we have to fight for both: lower rents, (less over-) time at work, more communal spaces to meet, cook, eat, be jolly! Joining up in a solidarity network can be a first step.




8 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on April 3, 2016

Mostly an accurate, if depressing summary of conditions generally and perhaps even more so in London. The conclusions are correct but no different to those made by many of us in the radical milieu in easier and more hopeful times around the late 60's. Some experiments around then worked others didn't and I can't say I've witnessed any progressive evolution from those times so it seems we're pretty much starting over again in these more desperate times.


8 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Sova on April 14, 2016

"Since May 2012 single parents of kids over five years of age don’t get income support (IS), but have to go to the job centre and claim JSA ... Single parents can claim 70% of childcare costs ..." - Yes, force all parents of young children back to work, children into day care for 12 hours a day, and then hand-wring about the lack of family structure. And it's not just the working class/single parents. I think we are the only country in Europe that deems it acceptable for 6 month old babies to be forced away from their mothers (paid mat leave runs out at 6 months) into the care of strangers which is what happens when you need two salaries to pay a ridiculous mortgage.