Monday, 21 November 2011

The Canary Wharf Ant Farm

I do a lot of my work in a cafe. Many of my colleagues are not based in the City, our customers often don’t want us to mingle with their staff due to issues of confidentiality and my wife goes mad if I’m home too much, so I spend an enormous amount of time in coffee shops. If you see a scruffy looking guy (only wear a suit when I have to, what my wife calls, 'pretend to be a businessman') in one of the coffee shops in Canary Wharf, it could be me. I love looking at all the people that pass by and believe me there are many interesting people in Canary Wharf. Canary Wharf, if you are unfamiliar, is organised with an underground subway station that lead up to a series of underground tunnels filled with shops that again lead up to the above ground skyscrapers that house the banks, HSBC, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Citi etc. etc. When you are like me sitting in one of the many underground coffee shops, it feels like you are in the middle of a giant Ant Farm.

If I’m unfortunate enough to be there during early morning and midday rush-hour when the 'worker Ants' all have to eat and have coffee at the same time, the place becomes very tense and stressed for a couple of hours a day. The worker Ants are always walking very fast and usually carry two or three mobile phones, which they spend the majority if their lunch hour checking obsessively. For that reason the free WIFI never works in the lunch hour, there are simply too many people clicking REFRESH REFRESH at the same time




They commute in from the suburbs in morning on the tube. It is warm, absolutely packed and the perfect place to contract a viral/bacterial infection or worse even, endure an hour with your face buried in some bloke’s armpit. They are then squeezed out of the tube at Canary Wharf station. Most escalators move upwards in the morning and downwards in the afternoon, moving the crowds with efficiency like a German motorway. The Ants all go to lunch at the same time, and leave the office at the same time, squeeze into the tube at the same time in the afternoon. Another 90 minutes of armpits, home, get the kids something to eat, catch up on emails and then to bed. Tomorrow is another day. Why the long journey you ask? Because the common misconception is that all bank employees make an exorbitant amount of money. However most are in fact on relatively modest salaries. Above average but not by much. The property market in central London is fuelled by foreign wealthy buyers. It is on one hand what make London the incredible place it is, there are always some people and some money looking for a home in the City, but on the other hand it is also why most people on a middle income can’t afford live there, hence the long commute. Why do they do it you ask? Because that is what they can do. It is a rare privilege to be the master of your own destiny, one which is not always afforded to people who decided on a career path 10 years ago, when the situation was very different.
It is interesting how bankers are perceived as one thing, one kind of people, while the truth is that the vast majority are worker Ants. They have little influence on the job they are doing and their remuneration certainly won’t get them invited to any bonga bonga parties. Yes being a worker Ant in Canary Wharf is far from the glamorous life of excess that some people think. The worker Ant’s world is a ruthlessly hard place, driven, I would argue, more by fear than greed. Fear of the day they are no longer required. The structural problems in the banking system and the uncertainties on how to deal with it make it very stressful place to be a worker. I know some people have been asked to reapply for their own jobs 5 times in 3 years.

The colony of course also has its soldiers, queens and its opportunistic parasites, like me, feeding on the scraps, which I will talk about in another post. Today is about the worker, who slaves away day after day, do not have the credentials to ever be anything but a worker, do their best to fulfil the role they have but no matter how well they perform they know that one day, somewhere in Brussels/Bank of England/No 10/ Top Floor etc., somebody will decide to change things in a way that their services are no longer required. When we call for change in the industry, cuts in the industry, we must remember that the workers here are as innocent as in any other Ant Farm.

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