Between sets of reggae and hiphop played by DJ Groovemaster Martin at the Speaking to Power event at The Playground Theatre on 19.1.19, activists and artists from Britain and abroad highlighted the devastating effects of economic and social inequality and called on audience members to join the fight for a fairer future.
Organised jointly by The Equality Trust and The Playground Theatre, the event was timed to mark The Fight Inequality Alliance’s Global Week of Action, an anti-inequality campaign aimed at countering Davos.
Commenting on the event by email, Jenny Ricks, Global Convenor at The Fight Inequality Alliance, said: “We are living in an inequality crisis. It affects people very fundamentally in many ways they experience every day – from whether you have decent work, who owns what wealth, who can access decent public services, who experiences violence, and so on in hundreds of tangible ways.”
Income inequality, the prime focus of The Equality Trust and the research that led to the Trust’s foundation, was but one of a broad church of social injustices addressed during the day.
Wanda Wyporska, Executive Director of The Equality Trust, said: “As we have trenchant gender, ethnic minority, disability and class pay gaps we cannot ignore the impact that protected characteristics have on our relationship to the labour market and on income and wealth inequality. These issues are intricately and inextricably linked.”
With the event taking place just minutes away from the burnt out of shell of the Grenfell Tower, the blaze that killed 71 residents of the tower in 2017 inevitably formed one of the focal points of the day.
Grenfell community members, media commentators and campaigning groups have argued that the extreme levels of income and wealth inequality seen in Kensington and Chelsea (K&C) and in Britain as a whole had a causal relationship with the disaster.
In “My Grenfell Year”, a short documentary film shown at the event, local residents spoke eloquently about how they’d rallied as a community to support each other and fight for justice in the aftermath of the tragedy. “The fire was the product of decades of silent and invisible violence,” said one of the survivors featured in the film, in an apparent reference to K&C council’s refusal to listen to or respect residents’ concerns about fire risks prior to the tragedy.
Niles Hailstones, a musician and vocal Grenfell community activist, said: “Its (the fire’s) roots were in the culture that was being operated within RBKC for a very long time and still operates today in the same way. That’s not something that can change overnight in terms of how people in positions of power see who we are and what our use is in society because they’ve already set up a structure that keeps us on the lowest rung.”
Reflecting the wide range of issues affected by inequality, the organisers put on a variety of performances including an animated film about living with mental health problems, a poetry reading about global solidarity and a powerful re-enactment of the speech given by Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination.
In a panel discussion about the culture of putting profit before people Luke Espiritu, Labour Leader at Solidarity of Filipino Workers, said seven billionaires hogged the wealth of the Philippines, leaving 100 million citizens languishing in extreme poverty, with many being reliant on remittances from the ten million Filipinos who work overseas.
“Seventy per cent of Filipinos are precarious workers. That means they have no security, no minimum wage and no retirement money. Their work is being used by the owners of the business to squeeze profit away. And then when workers go home, they still have to give money to the business man. Why? Because 20% of your income goes to electricity since electricity was privatised in 2001,” he said.
The odds of escaping poverty in the Philippines are now so slim that people are giving up all hope, according to Luke. Illustrating his point, Luke spoke movingly about one his acquaintances, a teenage Filipino girl, who committed suicide after her efforts to study her way out of poverty came to nothing.
“It’s not about you exerting effort. The entire system is against you. Even if you study well your dreams will be crushed. The future will be bleak unless we band together and fight inequality,” he added.
Fellow panel member Koldo Casla, Policy Director at Just Fair, a charity dedicated to fighting for a fairer UK, said that inequality is a human rights issue.
“The Equality Act 2010 puts a legal requirement on the Government to reduce socio-economic inequality,” said Koldo. “But the Government has simply decided to ignore it.”
Pointing out that it’s not just the Equality Act our Tory rulers have violated, Koldo informed audience members that Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, had slammed their austerity policies in a damning report written in November last year. The report states that austerity has left 14 million people, a fifth of the population, in poverty, with four million of these being more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million being destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.
It’s anti-poor policies like those of the Tory party that have galvanized The Fight Inequality Alliance to press for change. “We want to get a big picture message across that governments around the world must listen to their citizens instead of elites at Davos and end the Age of Greed,” said Jenny Ricks.
“Privilege and wealth are reshaping economic and social systems at the expense of people as a whole and the planet. Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model that privileges elites and corporates over the rest of society,” she added.