Who Had It So Good?

A meticulously researched oral history of migrant women workers in Britain over the last 70 years

If you have recently eaten out, gone to hospital or shopped at a supermarket, the chances are that your life intersected with that of a migrant worker. Often invisibly picking and packing food, cleaning wards or serving tables, their work has rarely been celebrated – or even acknowledged – in histories of postwar Britain. Migrants to Britain have long taken the unpopular, poorly paid or dirty jobs that indigenous workers tend to avoid. Furthermore, it is women – already disadvantaged in the labour market due to the combination of prejudice and their caring responsibilities – who have predominated in these jobs. Linda McDowell’s collection of oral testimony portrays the work of female migrants to Britain since 1945, capturing the inflections of their voices and the richness of their complex lives. Stories from those fleeing the chaos of Lithuania and Latvia during the Second World War are set alongside those fleeing the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, or the harassment of Asians by East African regimes in the 1960s and 1970s. Economic migrants from Ireland, Poland and Pakistan describe their often fraught arrivals and their experiences in the labour market. 

Irish women had a long history of migrating to mainland Britain in large numbers, often to work in domestic service or manufacturing. Asian and Afro-Caribbean migrants were, however, largely male in the early years of mass migration, until the later 1950s. As British passport holders, Commonwealth citizens had the right to settle in Britain; this became increasingly politically controversial. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which limited the rights of colonial subjects to come to Britain, provoked a large spike in numbers as many sought to ‘beat the ban’. Subsequently, Irish women still came freely to Britain and women from the ‘New Commonwealth’ continued to arrive, but mostly as dependents of those already in Britain.  

Few postwar migrants could afford not to take paid employment, though they did not always have much choice of job. Much of the work described here is in the service sector, with a predominance of nursing, domestic work, such as cleaning and childcare, retail jobs and receptionists. One chapter is devoted to industrial work in manufacturing and textiles, giving a vivid portrayal of the noise and physical sensations of assembly line work. Friendships were vital to survival. One Punjabi migrant, Surjit, commented on her work for British Airways in the 1990s: ‘You know how a wedding day goes by with all of you talking and working together? That’s how it used to be. As if you had come to a family wedding.’ But others describe racist hostility or extreme pressure from managers, who sought to control and intensify the work process. 

Increasingly, the later interviews reveal complex webs of agency work and contracting out. Workers often found that their conditions deteriorated. For Surjit: ‘When BA sold off, there were some changes. Instead of working at a table, they introduced a belt … You have to work at their pace. … Two women cannot do the work that used to be done by six women earlier, can they?’ Though previous generations had also experienced casual work, the reduction in direct employment made for more precarious working conditions in the later 20th century.

What is particularly valuable about this collection is McDowell’s willingness to set the experiences of unskilled migrants alongside those with professional qualifications and careers. Women working in banking or academia had significant class advantages and more choices in their lives, though many shared with their unskilled peers experiences of racism and exploitation. Indeed, because those working at higher skill levels were more likely to be working with men, some found their working lives in areas such as finance or advertising to be shaped by aggressive macho workplace cultures. 

Despite differences of ethnicity and class, being female in the labour market created common experiences of negotiating commitments to family, in Britain or overseas. McDowell charts the intense pressures around who would care for children or elderly kin and which relationships could survive the trauma of moving country. The collection includes home workers, such as Bashira, who sewed dolls and dresses at home while raising her seven children, and consistently foregrounds the interdependence of ‘home’ and ‘work’. Husbands or families often expected women to undertake additional tasks. All of those interviewed discuss the ongoing demands of housework and childcare, which barely diminished despite the falling family size of the postwar period.

Many women migrants were also asked to perform emotional labour, based on norms of feminine love and care. Some found this fulfilling, while others resented the assumption that care comes naturally to women. Younger women regularly reported sexual harassment and struggled to establish clear boundaries of employment. These voices are rarely of women who were embittered or victimised by their migration. Many resisted their exploitation by speaking up, joining unions or enlisting their friends to provide support. Some joined strikes, bringing with them traditions of organising from their countries of origin. The Grunwick strike of 1976-77, for example, was led by Asian women who defied stereotypes of submissive femininity. Others who faced difficult conditions simply developed a thick skin or repeatedly moved jobs to escape exploitation.  

Migrant Women’s Voices stresses the richness, as well as the hard work and precariousness, of many migrant women’s working lives. It refutes today’s common assumption that migrants are likely to be dependents on the state and shows the intensity of their resilience and commitment to self-support. The labour described in Migrant Women’s Voices is the backbreaking, routine work that enabled relatively high levels of growth and standards of living for postwar Britons. These are not jobs that will go away, for all the recent talk of robotics in care homes or on farms. Without migrant women staffing British hospitals, cleaning and caring for children, there would have been no welfare state. Without their making and selling goods, driving buses and cleaning hotels, Britons would never  have ‘had it so good’.

Migrant Women’s Voices: Talking About Life and Work in the UK Since 1945
by Linda McDowell
Bloomsbury Academic  280pp  £25.99

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