Race and migration are the most volatile and explosive issues in British politics today. In contrast to the tabloid headlines, Our City: Migration and the Making of Modern Birmingham explores how one of Britain’s major cities has been transformed for the better by its migrant population.
Over the last half century the UK has sought to resolve the challenges arising from large-scale migration within a multi-cultural framework and shown the fallacy of the doomsday scenarios painted by Enoch Powell. Today, voices similar to Powell’s, are using the dangers of Islamist extremism and the UK vote to leave the EU as reasons to reassert a closed British identity. Instead, this book argues, the response should be a firm defence of the principles of racial equality with a confident assertion of why mixed, open societies are the way forward for 21st century cities and why migrants are central to their future dynamism and prosperity.
Based on original interviews, this book tells the story of fifty migrants to Birmingham from all walks of life: first and second generation; men and women; from thirteen different countries from Ireland to India, Pakistan to Poland, the Caribbean to Somalia. This book shows the variety of migrant experience, from their working lives, to education, religion and relationships, and in particular challenges the monolithic views of communitarian authors.
Migrants are and will remain a permanent and growing feature of British and European cities. The book is rooted in Birmingham but places migrants’ experiences in the wider context of similar developments taking place in other large British and European cities. It combines the specific with the general and aims to fill a major gap in current popular literature. This is an optimistic book for challenging times. It shows how together we can develop mixed, open cities that blend new influences with old and create the intercultural cities that represent Europe’s future.
3 D jobs: Doing the Work that Nobody Else Wants to Do.
Ashraf lives in a long line of red brick, narrow-fronted terraced houses. Tall and slim, we sip tea in his living room, where the front door opens straight out onto the pavement. There are a row of streets here that stretch in parallel lines down to the main road that slices its way through inner city Sparkbrook. This used to be the heart of manufacturing Birmingham. The former Birmingham Small Arms factory was based at the bottom of the road, which in turn became the main centre of motor-cycle production in the UK. Those days are long gone, along with most of the indigenous white working class that used to live in these Victorian terraces. Today, the owner occupied houses are full of people originating from the Indian sub-continent and their children, along with more recent arrivals from the Yemen and Somalia. A few Irish remain. Ashraf’s mother lives across the road from him, while two other brothers live further down the street.
Ashraf’s parents came from the Mirpur area of Pakistan. His dad arrived in the 1960s and was employed as a steel worker in Sheffield and went back and forth to Pakistan. At the time lots of people were coming to the UK from Pakistan, many re-located because of the Mangla Dam, so his dad saw the chance to earn money and do better for his family. That was the reason for emigrating. He saved money on housing by living like many other migrants in shared accommodation. As soon as the night shift finished, they would swap beds with the day shift. House sharing meant a lot of mattresses on the floor. In 1977 his mother got her visa and the family settled in Sparkbrook. His father got a job at the Fort Dunlop tyre plant where his manufacturing career continued until he was made redundant in the mid-1980s.
Ashraf was born in 1977 in Sparkbrook. He went to the local nursery, junior and secondary schools. His father died while he was still at school and he and his eight siblings were brought up alone by his mother. Education wasn’t the priority at the time amongst kids of his age unless the parents pushed you. His mother came from a rural, peasant background so there was no strong pressure on him to get on. He went to the local technical college but lasted only four months.
The first generation of post-war migrants to Britain had played their part in Britain’s post-war manufacturing revival. Ashraf’s dad was one amongst many: he had worked in steel plants, foundries, brickworks and then a big tyre plant. The Thatcher era saw the wholesale demise of vast swathes of these manufacturing giants. From 1971 to 1984 Birmingham lost over 200,000 manufacturing jobs. The era of stable, steady, semi-skilled manufacturing jobs in large plants and factories drew to a rapid close. Their sons and daughters either looked to the white collar service sector for jobs, which usually required some examination qualifications or else they applied for the 3D jobs: the dirty, the dull or the difficult, the type of jobs that nobody else was that keen on doing.
There have always been low paid and casual jobs in the economy. It is just that a more casualised , non-unionised, de-regulated economy generates more of them. They are a growing feature of 21st century Britain. Carers, cleaners, cooks; van drivers, delivery drivers, taxi drivers; fruit pickers and food processors; packers and shelf stackers; waiters and washer-uppers; security men, porters, warehouse staff: many often working long hours, usually at the minimum wage, sometimes with irregular shift patterns and increasingly on zero hours contracts. These jobs are rife within and around the Birmingham area. They require few qualifications, are relatively easy to access and often require only a short CV. In the city 17% of the working age population have no formal qualifications, the highest figure of all English major cities and way above the national average. These are the types of jobs where many migrants are to be found, jostling with poorly-qualified locals. This chapter looks at migrants’ experiences in a number of these areas.
On Christmas Eve I was with Jane, Jenny and my sister going out for a walk along Birmingham’s tiny River Rea. Heading for Cannon Hill Park, I bumped into Sam who I hadn’t seen for more than ten years. He was out cycling with his wife and two teenage children. He greeted me by saying, “Ah, it’s Jon Bloomfield. You’ve just written a book about migration. It’s all over Twitter and Facebook.” So, many…
These people are helping to fund Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham.