Working Lives: Gender, Migration and Employment in Britain, 1945- 2007, by Linda McDowell

Pat Thane on a book that provides important insights into the experience of female immigrants

October 10, 2013

There are plenty of studies of immigrants but, overwhelmingly, they focus on men. Yet women have been a high proportion of migrants to Britain since at least 1945, coming alone or with families in search of work or experience, or as refugees. Most have needed to work, and, more often than British-born women, work full-time.

So this is an unusual study, looking as it does at how the lives of women migrants, and especially their working lives, have been shaped by their gender as much as, and sometimes more than, by their cultural backgrounds.

Linda McDowell, an economic geographer at the University of Oxford, draws on 100 interviews she conducted with women who migrated to the UK throughout this period of profound changes in both the immigrant population and in British society as a whole.

It began with the influx of “displaced persons” after 1945. They were uprooted by the war, unable or unwilling to return home, in many cases because of the Russian occupation of Eastern Europe. Brought to Britain, often reluctantly, to fill jobs amid the post-war labour shortage, they were strictly controlled: allocated jobs and housing, required to stay for three years and to report regularly to the police. Most were men. They were often well educated but could only get low-skilled, low-paid work; for women, this often meant jobs in textile factories or domestic work in the less favoured parts of the NHS such as mental hospitals and tuberculosis sanatoriums. Interviewed in later life, the women described how the biggest barrier between them and British workers had been less ethnicity than class and education, which hampered communication. Some escaped through promotion, gaining a reputation for hard work and reliability, or they trained as nurses.

Their experience set a pattern for later migrants. By 1950 the supply of Europeans dried up and the government looked to the Caribbean to fill vacancies, especially in the expanding health service and public transport. Again, ambitious young nurses from Jamaica found themselves shunted into less skilled sectors, overlooked for promotion and disparaged by patients, sharing wider discrimination with immigrant men and unequal pay and low-status employment with British women, only more so.

Next, from the late 1960s, came Asians from South Asia, Uganda and Kenya. The East Africans were often middle class, but it was hard for any Asian women to escape low-status work in services or small factories. McDowell interviewed East African Asians who defied the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman through their activism in the strike wave of the 1970s, most famously the 1976-78 struggle at the Grunwick photo processing plant in Willesden, north-west London. Although the strike ended in defeat, it showed that exploited immigrant women were protesting.

That stopped in Thatcher’s Britain. In the 1980s immigration continued with little significant change. British-born women experienced some improvement at work, but few immigrants did. Four exceptions, all white women migrants to high-end City jobs, expressed to McDowell their shock that discrimination - in everyday discourse, appointments, promotion, pay and sexual harassment - were even worse in London finance than elsewhere, then as now. These women, too, were more inclined to assertiveness and protest than their (few) British female colleagues, which only made things worse.

In the 2000s, immigration became more diverse, drawing in Eastern Europeans, refugees from war and famine, trafficked women, illegal immigrants - with the last three groups, of course, hard to interview. The Europeans cited here provide a neat comparison with their predecessors post-1945. Their accounts suggested how little had changed, other than to become worse.

Educated women came often to find only low-skilled, low-paid work, mainly in service industries, and were often seriously exploited by agencies in both their home countries and here, a situation that successive governments have done too little to control.

McDowell provides intriguing, important insights into the female immigrant experience, drawing selectively on interviews with sections of this complex shifting population. It is too diverse an experience to survey comprehensively in a short book, but it whets my appetite for a fuller version that draws on all of the interviews she conducted.

Working Lives: Gender, Migration and Employment in Britain, 1945- 2007

By Linda McDowell
Wiley-Blackwell. 294pp, £60.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9781444339192, 39185 and 9781118349243 (e-book)
Published 19 July 2013

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