Inequality: London as a Body16 minute read

‘Impression De Nuit (London)’

See what a mass of gems the city wears
Upon her broad live bosom! row on row
Rubies and emeralds and amethysts glow.
See! that huge circle like a necklace, stares
With thousands of bold eyes to heaven, and dares
The golden stars to dim the lamps below,
And in the mirror of the mire I know
The moon has left her image unawares.

That’s the great town at night: I see her breasts,
Pricked out with lamps they stand like huge black towers.
I think they move! I hear her panting breath.
And that’s her head where the tiara rests.
And in her brain, through lanes as dark as death,
Men creep like thoughts…The lamps are like pale flowers

Lord Alfred Douglas

London: A Brief Introduction

London; a vast, modern metropolis oozing with energy, vivacity and extraordinary wealth. World renown and indestructible, it has been embedded as a key player within the global economy for centuries, living and breathing life into every aspect of society. It has always been imbued with a certain energy; a central gravity at the heart of the city, pulling people in from all over the globe. London has never experienced a stagnant trajectory; it is a city that is endlessly being renewed, continuously in a state of ‘becoming’ and ever rising towards the upper echelons of success. Rebuilding itself from ruins after innumerable traumatic episodes, London has often been described as a phoenix rising from the ashes (Bragg 2000); alluding to a sense of immortality and supremacy. As implied in Douglas’ ‘Impression de Nuit’, London radiates an air of luxury and opulence; glistening skyscrapers, historical landmarks, and other ostentatious ornaments illuminate its skyline and ‘bejewel’ its ‘skin’.

However, beneath the wealth, opulence and glamour that London instils, lies a reality that is not aligned with what appears on the surface. The internal body of London, masked by the ‘spectacle’ of the city, is characterised by a stark dichotomy of poverty and wealth, social exclusion, and inequality. How London is most commonly perceived can be imagined as the skin, or external appearance of the body, which is adorned with state of the art architecture; global firms and businesses; world-renowned art; and a vast pool of expertise, just as a woman may adorn herself in jewels, or a man may wear an expensive suit. In a sense then, London can be compared to a body. Our bodies represent who we are and depict how we wish to be identified. Therefore, how we present ourselves physically affects how others perceive us and how we interact with the world. However, bodies are often exploited and used as a façade, presenting a different image from what remains unexposed beneath the skin. In a similar way, London, by emitting such an air of affluence and wealth on the surface, masks the harsh reality of what lies beneath.

I will begin this essay by analysing Sassen’s (1999) global city discourse, particularly focusing on the ever-widening gulf created between ‘urban glamour zones’ and ‘urban war zones’, as well as highlighting the significance of Robinson’s (2002) critique of Sassen’s global city framework. I will then provide a deeper insight into the inequality within London’s labour market, using Robinson’s framework as the perspective from which I will approach this issue, exploring past and present trends, as well as considering the implications for the future. I am aware that inequality exists in numerous areas of society, including health, education or the property market; however, this essay will focus solely on the labour market.

Global Cities vs Ordinary Cities

‘Global cities’ (Sassen 2000) such as London can be considered to be a kind of spectacle; a grandiose event that conceals the ‘production line’. Any spectacle is created to be enjoyed, but the question of who gets to enjoy it is another story. In a similar sense, a ‘global city’ can also be considered a spectacle; an extravagant body performing excess materiality; a body of over-accumulation that glimmers and shines, while the means by which the performance is produced remains hidden backstage.

According to Sassen (2000), ‘global cities’ comprise a concentration of skilled labour and a vast pool of wealth, both in terms of human capital and in economic terms. They serve as hubs for global flows and transactions and are dominated by the financial industry, as well other specialised services characterised by high pay and advanced skills. She argues that global cities are both place-centred, as they are located in strategic sites, and ’transterritorial’ (Sassen 2000:92), resulting from their intricate connections to other, not geographically proximate areas. She also stresses the significance of the multiplicity of cultures present within global cities, as seen in London today, where over 3.8 million of its residents (44%) are of a black and minority ethnic origin (BBC 2015).

However, despite London serving as an organising node of the global economic system (Robinson 2002), it has evolved into a ‘dual city’, which not only attracts a skilled workforce, but also relies on poorly paid, unskilled labour, often comprised of immigrants and women, to service the global firms which agglomerate here. In an interview for City Life, Sassen (2001) identifies the urban glamour zone as having ‘fine restaurants, state of the art buildings, state of the art residences, beautiful streets, private security and world class culture’. The urban war zone, on the other hand, is a ‘part of the city that has been neglected in terms of basic public services, such as garbage collection… It is a zone where you have a sense of surplus population and also a sense that these people have been robbed of something’ (Sassen 2001).

Externally, those in the lower echelons of the labour market do not seem to have much of a connection to global cities, as argued by Knox (1995: 41), who states that those who are excluded from the space of global capitalism, and thus from the field of world cities, are ‘economically irrelevant’. In reality however, it is exactly this proportion of the population that is hugely responsible for their very existence. They are hidden backstage, labouring away at the ‘production line’ in order to ensure a successful ‘spectacle’, silently forming the foundations of the city. This division of labour is particularly prominent in areas of London, such as the financial district, where during the day businessmen and women in suits, carrying briefcases, dash in and out of tall glass buildings, ready to meet their next client or attend their next conference. As the sun sets, however, and the city workers head home, this space, to which we have attached a particular imagined geography (Said 2000), transitions into a space that distorts our initial perception of it. The migrant maintenance men, female cleaners, builders and other such workers labour behind the scenes, tending to the ‘production line’ and upholding the literal and metaphorical foundations upon which these giant glass towers are built. In the morning, the suits return and the workers are nowhere to be seen. However, over time, workers in the lower ranks of the labour market have become subject to social, racial and ethnic exclusion and are under-represented as part of the global economy, contributing to a new geography of centrality and marginality.

Robinson (2002), on the other hand, takes a critical stance on this matter, arguing that ‘global cities’ should not be viewed as an ideal. She encourages the adoption of the ‘ordinary city’ discourse, which calls for a broader, less ambitious approach to contemporary urbanisation. Such an approach does not place cities on a hierarchical scale and is ‘more inclusive of the diversity of experience in ordinary cities’ (Robinson 2000). She stresses that the hierarchical nature of the ‘global city’ places greater emphasis on the difference between the ‘third-world city’, and the ‘global city’, which only exacerbates the stigma attributed to cities in the developing world, and identifies ‘global cities’ as superior. Robinson (2000) also criticises the empirical focus within the ‘global cities’ discourse, arguing that the determination of status within this framework is purely economic. She critiques the idea that all cities that are not considered ‘global’ are essentially irrelevant to the global economy and argues that in contrast to what the ‘global cities’ discourse alludes to, ‘ordinary cities’ are just as significant, emphasising the importance of understanding their historical, social and cultural legacies (Robinson 2000).

In my opinion, just as wearing jewellery or an expensive suit may not necessarily be an accurate representation of a person, nor indeed make them any better than their neighbour, glimmering skyscrapers and a hub of global banks may also too be an inaccurate depiction of the city, not necessarily making it superior to the next. One does not have to be global or glamorous: one can be ordinary; the idea of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is unnecessary for ordinary existence. ‘Ordinary’ does not necessarily equate to being less valuable when reflecting on what it is that we are valuing. For instance, surely an ‘ordinary city’ characterised by equality and social justice should not be considered ‘irrelevant’ compared to a ‘global city’, which beneath its glamorous and affluent exterior, is subject to mass inequality and impenetrable social issues.

London’s Inequality: Division of Labour

Wills et al. (2010) highlight the universal nature of global migrations and divisions of low-wage labour in London. They suggest that despite the heterogeneity of migration experiences and the variation in sending countries, there exists a continued convergence of immigrants into low-skilled, low-pay occupations, often characterised by discrimination and marginalisation. For instance, while a migrant from the EU may be employed in an industry different to that of a migrant from an underdeveloped country, such as Zambia, discrimination and stereotyping is still experienced at the same level within that sector of the labour market (Wills et al. 2010).

However, while such stereotyping may be considered ignorant, there is a certain degree to which it is not totally false. In the current day, clustering does occur within the low-wage labour market, and it is increasingly common for particular national groups to concentrate in specific areas of the economy. For instance, a third of the Filipino population in London is employed in the health and social care industries (Wills et al. 2010). The Office for National Statistics (2015) reveals the main low-wage industries in London, which are highly correlated with migrant labour. The lowest paid jobs in London are found within the cleaning sector, with an immense 76% of workers paid less than the living wage. This is followed closely by accommodation and catering services at an estimated 65%, after which around 50% of both retail and social care workers earn below the living wage. However, as suggested by Wills et al. (2010), it is ‘the people who clean our offices and trains, care for our elders and change the sheets on the bed’, that we should attribute much of London’s ever-growing success to.

In terms of inequality, Londoners from white ethnic groups, those born in the UK and UK nationals earn more per hour than those from BAME (Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic) groups, those born outside the UK and non-UK nationals at every level of qualification, according to the Focus on London Labour Market Report (2011). Further, London has the most unequal pay distribution in the UK, due to extortionate pay at the top end of the scale. The top 10% of employees in London earn a minimum of £1,420 weekly, while the bottom 10% receive no more than £340 (London Poverty Profile). Goos and Manning (2007:119) attribute this widening gulf of inequality to the growth in ‘lousy jobs’ (low-wage service occupations) together with a rise in ‘lovely jobs’ (professional and managerial occupations in finance and business services), while the number of ‘middling jobs’ (clerical jobs and skilled manual jobs) between these two extremes has dramatically decreased.

As a response to this masked inequality found in London, many organisations and political movements have developed in the capital. One such union is ‘Citizens UK’, previously known as ‘London Citizens’. Made up of workers at the bottom end of the labour market, Citizens UK has used endless campaigning tactics, including invading Goldman Sachs’ offices and HSBC’s meetings, to persuade employers to pay their staff more generously, and offer longer-term contracts. One particularly successful campaign carried out by Citizens UK was the introduction of the ‘Living Wage’ in London, which was launched over a decade ago to ensure that Londoners were able to earn enough for what they considered to be the essentials in life (Stewart 2011).

While children once dominated informal labour in London’s economy, particularly during the Victorian era, today migrants and women occupy London’s low-paid jobs. It is arguably this proportion of the population that has formed the backbone of London’s economy, enabling it to grow and flourish as a ‘global city’ (Sassen 2000). In Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time: London (2000) podcast, his discussion with Peter Ackroyd, author of London: A Biography (2001), touches on Dickens’ portrayal of London in the 1800s, referring to it as a ‘city of extraordinary fragmentation’. While Dickens depicts London as a city of sheer vivacity and energy, he also illuminates the stark dichotomy between wealth and poverty that existed during this period, particularly exploring the lives of the proportion of the population clinging onto the edges of society, which in his novels manifested themselves in the likes of chimney sweepers, dressmakers and Fagin’s boys (Hewitt 2012). Dickens highlighted the childhood poverty, rising inequality and high levels of unemployment that characterised this part of society. While the harsh realities of Victorian London no longer persist to the same extent to which they did in the 1800s, inequalities are as prominent as ever; only today, the opulence of the ‘global city’ masks the plight of those struggling in the margins of society.

Some, including Dorling (2010), in his book Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, argue that such unprecedented rises in inequality put us on a par with Victorian society. He claims that ‘in countries like Britain, people last lived lives as unequal as today, as measured by wage inequality, in 1854, when Charles Dickens was writing Hard Times’ (O’Hara 2010). One of his propositions for the persistence of inequality is the media’s role in implying that some workers are less deserving than others; that ‘where great City businessmen (and a few businesswomen) are lauded as superheroes, immigrants looking to work for a crumb of the City’s bonuses are seen as scroungers’. While Dorling’s statements may be ridiculed as pseudo-Marxist and overly exaggerated, it is important to note the irony that is London’s upward trajectory in terms of economic success and its major role on the global scale, juxtaposed with the stagnant level of inequality that has persisted over the centuries.


London has become embedded in this ‘global city’ discourse, but has historically always existed as a space where inequality has been rampant. Being a central node of accumulation, it absorbs and consumes a myriad of resources, aiding its ostentatious exterior. It is fixed in a continuous, upward trajectory; ever trying to rise above its current state of existence, albeit with minor fluctuations experienced along the way. This alludes to the expression of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, which in society is generally considered shallow and superficial. Does London need this opulent exterior appearance? Does it not face more pressing issues beneath this façade? Why are plans already being drawn out for the city’s next skyscraper, when a few streets down from its proposed site, a mother and her three children are trying to survive off the minimum wage in a one bedroom apartment?

I did not touch on all the areas of inequality faced by London and I am aware that I have omitted other aspects of society that are characterised by a dichotomy of poverty and wealth, which would positively contribute to this discourse; an ongoing debate regarding the nature of global cities. I have provided a deeper insight into labour market inequalities both in the context of the past and the present, but what of the future? Where will this inequality take us? Present politics are informing a future currently at work. We are continually shaping the city’s future trajectory, and while optimists may advocate a fair society and propose pseudo-Marxian policies to prevent the sustenance of inequality, realists will hold that the survival of a city, such as London, is wholly dependent on those in the lower ranks of society, who perform the ‘dirty’ jobs behind the curtain of this grandiose ‘spectacle’. Without inequality, it can be argued, London could not exist. What can be said about the future of London’s inequality is limited, however by looking at past trends, projections can be made. As previously mentioned, London has evolved as a city, which is always looking to achieve more, be that socially, politically or economically. For this modern metropolis, ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ has never been sufficient. Instead, London is constantly acquiring new jewels and ornaments with which to decorate itself; ‘See what a mass of gems the city wears’, Douglas writes in his poem. Historically, where such opulence and wealth exists, so too does poverty. I would therefore argue, that inequality, regardless of how much is done to mitigate it, has and always will be a harsh reality implanted in our capital.

London is a body, a living organism adorned in the most expensive jewels. What takes place beneath this embellished skin, however, despite serving as the vital organs which enable vital bodily processes to take place and allow the body to function, remains hidden beneath this lavish façade, masking the reality of London’s unequal society.


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Bragg, M., (2000), ‘In Our Time: London’.

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‘Estimates of employee jobs paid less than the living wage in London and other parts of the UK’, Office for National Statistics 2015. Retrieved 01/12/15 from:

‘Focus on London-Labour Market 2011’, FOL Labour Market Report- Greater London Authority. Retrieved from:

Goos, M., Manning, A., (2007), ‘Lousy and Lovely Jobs: The Rising Polarization of Work in Britain’, 89(1), pp. 118-133.

Hewitt, D., (2012), ‘Rich London, poor London – a tale of two cities’, New Internationalist Magazine. Retrieved 04/12/15 from:

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Robinson, J., (2002), ‘Global and World Cities: A View from off the Map’, 26(3), pp. 531-554.

Said, E. W., (2000). ‘Invention, memory, and place’, Critical inquiry, pp. 175-192.

Sassen, S., (2001) Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago, quoted in the TV-E video series, Life II, ‘City Life’, Programme 1.

Sassen, S., (2000), ‘The Global City: Strategic Site/ New Frontier’, 41(2), pp. 79-95.

Sassen, S., (2001), Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago, quoted in the TV-E video series, Life II, “City Life,” Programme 1.

Stewart, H., (2011), ‘Working for nothing – the truth about low pay in the UK’, The Guardian. Retrieved 07/12/15 from:

Sutherland, J., (2006), ‘The ideas interview: Saskia Sassen’, The Guardian. Retrieved 02/12/15 from:

Wills, J., Datta, K., Evans, Y., Herbert, J., May, J., McIlwaine, C., (2010), ‘Global Cities at Work: New Migrant Divisions of Labour.’

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