The growing presence and influence and influence of Latin American communities in London has been emphasised by Hackney Council’s decision to recognise those from the region as an ethnic group. With the Latin American population having risen sharply in recent years, there has been pressure from advocacy groups to ensure newer arrivals are provided with the same rights and status as longer-established residents. Hackney’s move makes it the fourth London borough to identify Latin Americans as a community, following on from Lambeth, Southwark and Islington.
At the Welcoming New Communities event at Hackney Town Hall, staged to mark the council’s decision, Lucila Granada of the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK (CLAUK) explains the benefits of official recognition as an ethnic group. “It’s the first step towards a wider process of inclusion, which also includes participation and representation,” she says. “The council will start being able to see the lack of access to services that the community currently faces.”
There are a number of ways in which the council can support minority communities. “They will identify the issues or barriers that are problematic,” says Lucila. “It might mean information in Spanish or that they work more closely with our community organisation. For instance, in public consultations or decisions, they include all community groups, but they didn’t approach Latin Americans because we weren’t part of the recognised ethnic minorities here. Now, they will.”
With Hackney one of Britain’s most multicultural areas – the 2011 census recorded 89 first languages spoken in the borough – Deputy Mayor Sophie Linden believes multiculturalism has a positive impact. “We want to welcome new groups to Hackney and to celebrate diversity,” she says to representatives of the various organisations in attendance. “Hackney has a long and proud tradition of welcoming communities. That’s what today is about, to have that celebration and to say thank you for what you are doing in the community.”
According to research carried out by the University of London, the number of Latin Americans in London almost quadrupled from 31,000 in 2001 to 113,000 in 2011. That number is likely to have risen since, as more people arrive via Europe, where many qualify for Spanish, Portuguese or Italian citizenship through earlier family generations. Brazilians and Colombians are the largest groups in London, while an increasing number of Peruvians, Bolivians and Ecuadoreans are becoming established in the city. There are also older communities of Chileans and Colombians who initially came to the UK fleeing repression or violence at home.
This steep increase in numbers has created greater demand for organisations such as CLAUK which seek to support the Latin American community. “We are made up of twelve charities,” Lucila tells me. “We campaign towards three aims: gaining official recognition as an ethnic group, improving Latin Americans’ access to health services, and enforcing labour rights.”
Addressing these rights forms a major part of the support network, with new communities open to exploitation by employers. “Latin Americans in London have an 85% rate of employment,” says Lucila. “But most people are working in the cleaning or catering sectors, which offer very poor work conditions. A lot of people are in casual or temporary work, or with zero hour contracts, or they have to work in isolation. We’ve seen lots of cases of unpaid hours, harassment, and violations of sick pay or holiday entitlement. The situation in the cleaning sector is a big issue.”
Other challenges facing the community in Hackney were outlined by CLAUK in 2013. They included a lack of information in Spanish or Portuguese regarding health services; a lack of access to English classes exacerbated by low wages (workers don’t qualify for funding but cannot afford the fees); inadequate governmental concern for labour rights; and insufficient access to democratic participation and community engagement. The council’s recognition will seek to address these concerns and improve the quality of life for Latin Americans in the borough.
Deputy Mayor Linden is behind the decision to identify Latin Americans as a distinct group. “CLAUK asked if we would recognise Latin America as a category,” she says. “We look at all groups above a certain population in the borough. The criteria for recognition are a combination of overall population but also if there’s any additional reason such as extreme inequality when you’re trying to understand reasons of underachievement. We felt it would be a good opportunity to celebrate the changing population and the newer communities here. That way we can identify how we reach other communities as well.”
Official recognition means that London’s Latin American residents will now be afforded the same rights and concerns as other groups, although with only four boroughs having so far acknowledged the community, there is much still to be done. Next in CLAUK’s line of vision are the boroughs of Newham and Haringey. Lucila is optimistic. “We’re all very happy as it means the council has taken the commitment to throw light on an invisible community and will start monitoring the problems we face. It’s a huge step.”
For more information on CLAUK and its member charities, visit the organisation’s website.
Credit for main picture: Jesus Rigores
*Nick MacWilliam is a British freelance writer, editor and translator based between Chile, Argentina and London. As well as LAB, he contributes articles on culture and politics to Open Democracy, Pluto Press, the Quietus, Remezcla Magazine, Left History, the Comment Factory and various other publications. He is assistant editor of the online magazine Sounds and Colours, which focuses on South American music, cinema and literature, and the managing editor of Revolver Santiago Magazine, Chile’s main English-language cultural review. Follow him on Twitter at @NickMacWilliam.