Navigating Covid as a Small Business Owner

Before Covid I had a small business, things were tough but I earned a decent wage and I had autonomy. My business was coaching over 60s women to grow their confidence and to improve their health and wellbeing, it was incredibly fulfilling and it had been running for seven years. 

I did everything I could to keep people safe. I limited numbers, everything was cleaned after each session, then it was 1-2-1 sessions only, always in the optimistic belief that lockdown could be avoided, finally, with a weeks notice, the gym was closed and we hopped online. 

Turnover plummeted for a variety of reasons, mainly that people didn’t feel comfortable online. I made the decision to get a part time job almost straight away, my first foray was working for the much vaunted ‘Track and Trace’ scheme. I walked with the chip on my shoulder of having a key worker lanyard to attend my 3 day training scheme in a nondescript office block on the outskirts of Glasgow. 

This was the third week of lockdown 1, there was no social distancing, the training lasted 90 minutes instead of three days and we would be emailed the night before if we were needed the next day. The level of uncertainty and lack of security was a real eye opener. The contract lasted three weeks as the company was exposed for failing to adhere to social distancing and was closed down. I lost a week’s wages due to the company not replying to emails.

By this stage Rishi Sunak had made his big economic speech about wrapping his arms around the people of Britain. I nearly cried when I heard that Company Directors like me, would receive nothing, I still had gym rent to pay and a wage to take, it’s quite difficult to explain the feeling of being told your job/company is worthless in the eyes of the government. 

This led to my next jump, I was determined to not be left exposed like this again so I was going to use the pandemic to retrain, this led me to make a deal with the Devil, I put all my morals aside and went to work for the big enemy, The Big World of Online Retail. 

The big online retailer sent me my computer, gave me six weeks of training and then I was off, answering calls/emails and messages from angry folk looking for their lost trampoline. The work was lonely, demoralising and threatening, whenever we got bad ratings, we knew about it, the carrot of an actual contract at the end of nine months is dangled ahead of you at every turn, jovial memes about how great it is to take unpaid time off when it is quiet would come regularly and meetings would be peppered with insidious games like word bingo which was meant to be for fun but was clearly to check people were listening. 

I knew that if I did that job for six months I would be able to pay for my Data Analysis course, so here I am with four weeks left of the course and entering the tech jobs market whilst still keeping my gym open online, looking for another part time job to bide me over until I get a tech job, still without government support and also taking up volunteer roles to enhance my chances in the difficult job market. 

Having a flexible job market should be a stated aim of any Government, the fact that I wouldn’t have managed it in non-Covid times, that I had to pay fully for it myself and have to jump from insecure job to insecure job surely shows something is wrong, this wouldn’t have been possible If I had kids, or mental health considerations or caring responsibilities. 

My pandemic has been a rollercoaster which has tested me beyond what I thought capable, it has highlighted so many areas of inequality and the dangers of the gig economy, trying to change career and upskill is always going to be difficult but it shouldn’t be near impossible.

By Graham Angus, Glasgow. 

This article represents the personal views of Graham Angus not those of the The Equality Trust.

Why Wigan Council have made it their own responsibility to consider poverty

As charities, Just Fair and The Equality Trust continue to campaign for the socio-economic duty to be included in the UK’s equalities legislation, some public bodies, including Wigan Council, are taking matters into their own hands. Councillor Paula Wakefield, Lead Member for Equalities and Domestic Violence at Wigan Council, explains why in Wigan Borough, a key consideration when developing new policies, is now the impact the policy will have on lower income households.

I understand from personal experience the effect that coming from a lower income family can have on your life.

My own family were in a relatively stable situation financially until my father died when I was 13. He had received blood products contaminated with Hepatitis B and C as well as HIV as part of a treatment he had for his Haemophilia. He went on to die from Hepatitis C.

It was the early 90’s and there was massive stigma and discrimination surrounding those conditions at that time. We lost our home, and my father lost his job and his life insurance. When he died we were left financially unstable and were forced into bankruptcy.

The impact of suddenly living in a lower, single income household affected everything. I stopped asking my mum if I could go on school trips or holidays as I knew she couldn’t afford it. My brother and I received free school meals and bills for essentials like utilities suddenly became a real struggle.

I had done well at school but knew that higher education wasn’t an option for me. I couldn’t see how we could afford for me to go to University with all the costs involved. I knew I had to get a job and bring money into the family as soon as possible. 

If you live in a lower income household, your life choices and pathways become limited, through no fault of your own.

Perhaps because of my background, addressing any type of inequality has always been a passion of mine, so when I was offered the Lead Member role for Equalities and Domestic Abuse at Wigan Council, I knew it would be a perfect fit for me.

One of the first meetings I had in my new role was discussing my passion for tackling the way families are disproportionately affected in so many ways if they come from lower income families.

I was informed that a decision had been made by the Government not to include socio-economic disadvantage as part of the Equality Act but that we could include it in our own Equality Commitment, which is already a statutory requirement, in the same way that we had adopted carers and veterans into our Commitment.

I made the decision that we must make this a priority and last year, Wigan Council added socio-economic disadvantage to the protected characteristics listed in our Equality Commitment and our Equality Impact Assessments.

The fact that socio-economic disadvantage is now part of our Equality Commitment means that every time a new policy is developed, we are required to consider the impact it will have on those from lower income households. If we think it may have a detrimental effect, we discuss what we can build into the policy to make sure that does not happen.

Considering poverty as part of our Equality Commitment has also helped to raise the profile of the issue. Wigan Council is taking action to improve the life choices for those from lower income families in many different ways including making sure that high quality health services are accessible in lower income areas, providing quality, affordable homes and building more of the right homes, harnessing the power digital has to improve people’s opportunities and creating local economic growth through our Community Wealth Building Strategy.

The fact that Wigan Council chose to create the Lead Member for Equalities role, means that equality, and as part of that, our socio-economic duty, is now always under the spotlight and there is a constant political challenge there to push the agenda.

It is so important for councils to adopt this duty. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that, yet again, it is the lower income families that are disproportionately affected and we must do everything we can to mitigate it.

We must continue to campaign for socio-economic disadvantage to be included in national legislation. But it’s also important to remember that there are small changes we can make locally, that can have a huge and positive impact on lower income families.

Everyone deserves the same life chances – no matter where you are born or how much money you have and if a Local Authority can help on that journey why would we choose not to?

This article originally appeared in the Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) newsletter on 20th January 2021. To access the GMPA newsletter go to: https://www.gmpovertyaction.org/news/

(Un)Equal Pay 2.0: The lived experience with Sophia Moreau

Episode 4 of The Equality Trust Podcast #InequalityBites. Activist & journalist Sophia Moreau talks with Wanda Wyporska of The Equality Trust about how she took an equal pay claim against her first employer when she found out she was being paid less than a male colleague for work of equal value. 

Inequality Bites is produced by The Equality Trust www.equalitytrust.org.uk distributed by The Real Agenda Network www.realagenda.org Music: Isatta Sheriff.

The Man

What does it mean to be ‘a man’? 

Does it mean that you’ve got to be strong, tall, fearless, or have muscles bigger than your head? These are the questions that affect many young men in today’s society, including myself. 

For a long time, I felt as though I was different, and that I wasn’t a ‘real man’. I was raised by a single mother, didn’t have much confidence talking to girls I liked, wasn’t brilliant at sport, was more ‘artsy’ as I loved music and drama. 

In school, you get labelled as soon as you walk through the door. There are the ‘cool’ kids, the ‘mean’ girls, the ‘nerds’ and many more. Although I never found out which of the many labels I got stuck with (I was probably just ‘that lad who sings’, if I’m being honest), I always felt like I was looked down upon by some of the other males in my school, for not being one of the sporty, popular lads. I was never bullied or anything like that, but I felt a bit isolated because there wasn’t anyone like me.

In today’s society, men between the ages of 18 and 45 feel the most pressured to ‘man up’ and refrain from showing any signs of ‘weakness’. This, in many cases, leads to them either harming themselves, or taking their own lives. The reality is, it’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to admit that you’re struggling mentally. It’s okay to be you. That was the main thing that I took from my time at university. 

I started being not ‘the man’ that I thought people wanted me to be, but ‘the man’ I wanted to be. So, I took what I liked about myself and ran with it. I decided to be myself, unapologetically, and it’s something I would recommend to anyone reading this, no matter who you are. There’s no point in hiding yourself as there’s nobody quite like you. We’re all unique and, instead of being pressured by social norms to be ‘the same’, we should celebrate our uniqueness and the uniqueness of others around us. 

Because, what does it actually mean to be ‘a man’? for me, being ‘a man’ means being accepting of yourself, and treating others with kindness and respect. In my opinion, being a true ‘man’ is reflected in the way you treat those around you. Celebrating difference, encouraging others to do what makes them happy, and building their esteem up, rather than pushing it down. 

My Grandad always told me “treat others as you would want to be treated and you’ll go far”. That’s something that has always stuck with me. I truly believe that if we learn to accept each other for who we are, toxic masculinity, as a concept, would be reduced. This is vital, especially since nobody knows how long they have left to live. All men are ‘the man’.

By Stephen Armstrong

Physically proximate, but economically remote: gentrification in Hackney

I grew up in Hackney in the ‘90s and 2000s. I returned four years ago to work in the community. I’ve been struck by two main features of its inequality.

Despite its gentrification, there’s much continuity in Hackney

Simplistic narratives about Hackney’s complete “hipsterisation” abound, but having undertaken an extensive research project into the lives of young people locally, it’s clear to me that far from everything has been transformed.

There have been significant changes. Expensive shops and cafes have proliferated. Daniel, one of the brilliant young people I’ve worked with once said: “these new places are so close – they’re just round the corner or across the street – but they feel so far away.” 

Young people in Hackney are surrounded by new places which are physically proximate, but economically remote: they can’t afford or access them despite living alongside them. The worst example of this is ‘Hackney Fashion Walk’ – a collection of luxury outlet stores part-funded by the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund after the 2011 riots, which have now almost all closed. An act of corporate vandalism, presented as regeneration.

Daniel looks across the road at an expensive gym. Like Hackney Fashion Walk, it’s failed commercially and is now closed

Young people can see who benefits from change locally. Respondents to our research spoke about the area seeming to “prioritise richer people” or the “upper class”. One 19 year-old put it strongly: “They’re just about bringing in clothing shops, so it ain’t benefiting us… it ain’t helping young people, it’s just helping whoever owns the property.”

Many participants spoke openly about knowing they won’t be able to stay in the community that has always been their home. At a local school, a girl of around 15 said she feared going to university, because of knowing she couldn’t afford to live back in Hackney. Children in local primary schools spoke with sadness about their neighbours having to move out because they couldn’t stay in the area anymore. When talking about the changes they wanted, their answers included “lower rent” and “higher wages”.

A very well-placed street sign above a developer’s hoarding in Hackney Wick.

The question of who has the most claim to live in a certain area is an incredibly difficult one, as the perpetual debates about migration and asylum-seeking, as much as those about gentrification, attest. But one thing seems very clear to me: it’s not a question to be left to “the market”.

Among all this upheaval, though, there are important indicators of continuity. The young people we spoke to celebrated the area’s continuing multiculturalism, community spirit, and neighbourliness. Less positively, they also emphasised long-running problems affecting local young people: housing problems, crime, youth violence, gangs, drugs, and lack of work opportunities. One 15 year-old put it starkly: “Everything is more expensive here [but] the community hasn’t changed – it’s still poor.” Whack my old postcode (E9 5SX) into the Index of Multiple Deprivation data map, and you’ll see it’s still among the most deprived areas in the country. It was recently announced that Hackney now has the third highest rate of child poverty in the UK, the rate having increased by nearly 7% in the past year, so that now close to half of Hackney’s children are in poverty.

The same issues which affected my generation of young people in Hackney continue today, seemingly untouched by regeneration and gentrification. 

Parents from different backgrounds are treated very differently by (some) schools

One of my main roles in Hackney is supporting young people and their parents through difficulties in education. Quite often, after I attend a meeting at school with a parent and/or student, they comment with mixed feelings about how differently they were treated with me there – it’s good that they got more respect, but it’s bad that the teachers can only avoid demeaning them when there’s another professional present.

This belittling treatment is not equally distributed. Parents from poorer backgrounds, younger parents, single parents, female parents, and parents of colour are often victims of the greatest contempt. I’ve seen it. 

One parent said to me on the phone, the very first time we spoke: “I feel like the school is classist, Luke. They treat me a certain way because I’m a young single mum from Hackney. My neighbour is [professional], and they treat them very differently.” The idea that a school in Hackney would discriminate against a parent because they’re from Hackney is self-evidently absurd, but sadly very plausible: there is an intense superiority complex shot through some local schools (not all), which seem to view themselves as fortresses of civilisation in a savage neighbourhood. 

It goes without saying that this inequality is reflected in exam results and – most notably – in exclusion statistics.

Fighting (the symptoms of) inequality in Hackney

Hackney Quest, the charity I work for, fights the everyday symptoms and the causes of inequality in Hackney, as much as we can. We run free community meals and give out food parcels. We recently partnered with another charity, Build Up, to give local young people the power to design and build a new public space. Daniel, mentioned above, was a paid youth leader on the project. 

But much more is needed, from local government, national government, the business world, and civil society. It’s a disgrace that parents can be treated so differently due to class, ethnicity or gender. It’s a disgrace that young people living streets apart in my home borough continue to live qualitatively different lives, due to a degree of inequality that can’t possibly be justified. However tightly you grip hold of the preposterous notion of British “meritocracy”, it’s hard to argue for the superior merit of one 8 year old over another.

By Luke Billingham, Hackney Quest

This article represents the personal views of Luke Billingham not The Equality Trust.

Hackney Quest is a youth charity which provides positive activities for the community’s young people. To find out more about their brilliant work visit Hackney Quest’s website.

Once upon a time of austerity in the Midlands

Stories of inequality and declining urban areas often focus on larger cities. They speak vaguely about ‘the North’. They bypass smaller towns in the Midlands. They bypass Northampton.

Most people can’t tell you where it is on a map: rarely does anyone visit. Yet Northampton is one of the largest towns in the UK. And just like ‘the North’ it is being hammered by austerity and neo-liberal economics, political collapse and a smashed local government system. Inequality is a living, breathing force that traps many thousands of people, and our town, in a spiral of decline that is unrelenting.

Yet on paper, it’s not poor; it does not trouble complex indices of deprivation; most people work; educational standards are not the worst. But it is collapsing. That collapse is measurable in a range of indicators that are less obvious.

For some two years it has had no elections. No viable system of local government. Trapped by Brexit and fears of electoral loss, its citizens have been denied democracy, since its county council was made bankrupt, taken into special measures, and is allegedly planned for abolition, absorbed into a new unitary also containing two areas to the west.

Some say that this happened because of a tragic combination of officer and councillor incompetence; people who really had no idea how to run anything, working with people with destructive and untested political ideologies, who ran the budget through the ground and headed for Hell.

The local borough council, also due to be abolished, seems to have been mired in corruption and financial mismanagement allegations, and suffered a crippling lack of trust amongst voters and the wider community.

The voluntary sector and community sector is likewise in freefall, destroyed by grant cuts from the statutory sector and ideological drivers of the allocation of what remains.

There is a talent shortage too. A significant percentage of pupils with ambition and good A levels leave the town, largely to London or abroad. This is because there are no suitable jobs for them here.

There are jobs: in warehouses, earning the minimum wage, working anti-social hours on zero-hours contracts. Jobs for young people are especially challenging, with the low wages they supply trapping young people in sofa surfing or staying later than they want with mum and possibly dad.

One of the results of that is homelessness: 120 people attend the Hope Centre’s daily drop in for the homeless and disadvantaged; 100+ people sleep rough every night in tent cities surrounding the town non-centre.

Another is the upsurge of local crime. The grandad told by his 13 yr old grandson that every classmate carries a knife; the local newspaper reporter who bemoans that they no longer have the capacity to cover every stabbing; the TV blue light show that told victims and criminals alike that there was only 1 police officer available at some times of day for over 200,000 people. 

It’s a sad story, much sadder if you live here. For many, there is profound apathy about achieving change. There is a very small middle class; this is not Bristol, Brighton, Oxford or Cambridge. There is no thriving green movement or visible LGBT energy at scale. Advertising of an event is often greeted by stony silence on social media. This is a seriously depressed town with few moments of energy and respite from the harshness of hardscabble existence. And this has led down some very dark paths indeed: nationalism and hostility to those communities who share the same inequalities – eastern Europeans most particularly.

There is a weary sense that solutions are not going to come out of traditional sources: local authorities, political parties, middle class activism. Solutions, if any, will come from the very communities and services working at ground level that are most aware of, and most victims of the problems described.

In the next submission to #everydayinequality we will look at some emerging responses to austerity in Northampton.

By Robin Burgess, Chief Executive of Northampton Hope Centre

This article represents the personal views of Robin Burgess not those of the Northampton Hope Centre or The Equality Trust.

Hope is a progressive anti-poverty charity that works to improve the lives of anyone affected by poverty, especially homelessness, through services, training, campaigning and advocacy.

You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Find out more about the brilliant work they do via their website.


Home

“It’s hard to think of anything better calculated to exacerbate all your insecurities about whether you appear as successful or as a failure, interesting or dull, clever or stupid, well-educated or ignorant, than being ranked by class”—The Inner Level.

Home is a fiction I manufacture, a question I sidestep, a place in my heart that I can only see when I sleep. I am a social migrant, born to a place where the dilapidation screams of a dearth of opportunities, even as ideas on the periphery of the mind. I resettled in a ‘better’ place where jobs are abundant, but only to those for whom prior knowledge and social conditioning have prepared them to enter, and my now Oxbridge-educated, but inherently proletarian, brain inculcates how much I will never truly belong here. I am stuck in the chasm between a culture I never truly fit into and one I cannot hope to reach.

The books that I collected from 10p boxes outside second-hand shops and angled between myself and the incessant glare of the talking screen, that shielded me from my mother’s admonition of what they represented, are not even worth noting, don’t qualify as real books, compared to the volumes your parents put into your hands, the works they taught you had meaning and value and discussed over dinner. I defer to you to tell me what inequality means from things you read in books because your roots, your middle class ones, gave you the confidence to speak them and mine, mired in the lessons of an entrenched class system, taught me that my thoughts are not as good as yours, that I am not as good as you. You speak over me because you know this inherent class truth and the power of hegemony.

I still have my childhood copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which gave me a language with which to translate my thoughts and values into a tangible expression. I left university and I learned that all of the words in the English lexicon couldn’t teach me to speak the same language as you; that culture, confidence, and business-savvy say far more than the most articulate discourse; that, at best, the things your parents taught you in conversation (and mannerisms), would take me years of immersion in a plethora of books and articles to uncover.

We are taught that working class is a lack. It is a lack of middle classness, a lack of opportunity to be better educated, to have better employment. But really, just to be better. All of the hours I spent teaching myself out of a world in which learning is rejected while caring for someone who couldn’t care for themselves are a blight on what matters and, moreover, a lack of just being in an environment of relative ease and privilege of opportunity. Denial of the past, a total obliteration of one’s own history, is the best step to forgiveness of this flaw.

My arms are still soft from where other children hit me to get here. My neck still aches from dodging their attempts to trip me by staring at my shoes. My lungs still expire their cigarette smoke from venturing into the school toilets. My stomach still churns from years of bad food. My struggle to be your shadow, to sink into inferior jobs, to fit around your superiority, burnt into my memory, is nothing, has no value, is merely a lack of what I could have been if I had not endured this.

School taught patience and endurance, to learn despite unremitting interruption and a lack of teachers and resources. As one of only a few pupils who cared to pick up a book, it did not teach me to be creative, innovative, collaborative, confident, or at ease. My education, fought against the tide, offered a lack of what is necessary to succeed in the modern world.

And home. Home is a place where my life, thoughts, and values matter, a milieu I slip into rather than jar against. Home is where I belong.

I want to go home. But it isn’t a real place.

Jo – Cambridge

Fighting inequality in the UK

Fighting inequality in the UK follows the stories of three activists:

Hannah, an 18-year-old Muslim woman from Acton, West London;

Aisling, a Brighton-based activist organising around the housing and homelessness crisis in the city;

Tracey, a community worker supporting local people in Teesside to take local action and campaign for economic and social justice.

The UK is the world’s 5th richest country, and 14 million people are living in poverty – including one in five British children. Meanwhile, the wealth of the UK’s richest continues to grow by billions year on year. The ever-increasing divide between the rich and poor is destroying British society.

But inequality is not inevitable; it is a result of deliberate, political decisions. 

Fighting inequality in the UK shows us that by coming together and acting with haste and urgency, a different future is already being built from the grassroots up.

A special thanks to the inspiring activists featured in the film for providing an insight into their daily lives, offering their solutions for a fairer society, and for doing the fantastic work they do every single day. Thanks also to Bollo Brook Youth Centre, ACORN Brighton – Community & Renters’ Union and Thrive Teesside.

Produced, filmed and directed by Ben Crowe, ERA Films.

This film was produced by The Equality Trust and generously funded by the Fight Inequality Alliance and Trust for London.