Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham
Chapter 6. 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.
The assured, steady manufacturing jobs of his father’s era had gone. Instead, Ashraf has had to find a series of 3D jobs in order to earn a living over the last twenty years. He started working as a labourer, followed by a stint as a lacquer sprayer. He did some packing where there was decent money, followed by security work at the Pallasades shopping centre in town. He then had seven years as a mini-cab driver which he liked but ‘was very, very flexible’ on hours. A spell of unemployment followed. He now works as a delivery driver for Asda.
“It’s good. I enjoy it, being out, no one watching you. The wage isn’t brilliant, it’s about £7 an hour but it’s about how comfortable you are in your job. If you don’t enjoy the work, it’s not worth it. As long as I can pay my mortgage and provide for my children, money doesn’t have a massive significance. I am not ever going to be a millionaire but I can support my family. I have regular hours and a set contract, which are two of the advantages of working for a larger, established company.“
His wife is careful with money; she’ll start looking for work soon once their youngest is at school. For the future he would like to be self-employed again. He likes being independent, so he is looking to start a small business but he won’t go straight into it. He’ll try to start slowly and build it up.
Ajay had come to the Midlands from India. When his small clothing business failed he got a job at the Post Office as a casual worker. That was his foot in the door. After two years, he got a proper job with them at the main Mailbox sorting office in town. The work wasn’t too heavy. He was sorting parcels and letters. It wasn’t boring but it was relentless - lifting, checking and shifting with a manager looking over his shoulder all the time, supervising what he and the others were doing. The basic pay was low but he made it up with overtime.
“I did lots of overtime and shift work. On average I did twenty to twenty-five hours a week overtime. It was the way we made up our money. At the Post Office I usually worked sixty five hours a week. Sometimes a bit less, but from September to December I would often work double shifts.”
They moved the workplace twice and both times he went with them. The office then moved again to Daventry, which would have involved a lot of commuting each day. Ajay felt this would be too much for him, especially after long shifts so, after fourteen years, he took early redundancy. He found a temporary job shifting goods in a big warehouse at Hams Hall on the edge of Birmingham and then found work as a driver for Ring and Ride as part of the Special Needs service provided by the West Midlands Transport. He did that from February 2004 for the next ten years until his retirement. Ring and Ride was a better job, as he found driving a bit easier and there was no manager looking over his shoulder. The pay wasn’t high - £250 a week by the time he finished - with no overtime. Looking back over forty-five years of work, once his clothing business had failed, he had done a series of manual jobs, none of them well paid, but he had grafted hard enough to look after and bring up his family and earned enough for him and his wife to now have their own house in one of Birmingham’s outer suburbs.
Driving is one of the classic areas of work where migrants congregate since the core skill is easily acquired. Across the world’s cities taxi driving is done by migrants. Getting ‘the knowledge’ is hard work which is now eased by the ubiquitous GPS systems, while the long hours are hard-wired into the migrant DNA. The Birmingham taxi business used to be dominated by Irish; now it is predominantly Asian and above all Pakistani. There are over 1,600 registered taxi drivers in the city and a large majority are of Pakistani heritage. Within the main Taxi Owners Association nearly 300 of the 450 members have a Pakistani background. Akram and Yasin are two of them.
Akram has been a driver for twelve years. His parents came to Birmingham from Mirpur in the 1960s. His dad worked in the paint shop at the British Leyland car plant in Washwood Heath for twenty years. Akram was born and brought up in Birmingham and before becoming a taxi driver worked in a series of industrial jobs, his last one making radiators and heating equipment. He left there after a bout of redundancies. As the redundancies began and his job started changing he began learning ‘the knowledge’ so that when he lost his job he was in a position to take up taxi driving. He works days, renting the vehicle from a mate. He is on the road, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, apart from Friday when he takes a two hour break to go to prayers. After all the costs are accounted for, he earns £450 a week. In other words, he works twice as long as a normal worker but still gets less than the average UK wage. Akram takes three weeks holiday a year. He plans to take a week in the Mediterranean, maybe Egypt or if that is a bit too risky he may try Morocco. Then he’ll go away for two weeks in January when the prices are lower. It’s a hard life but he gets by and it earns him a living.
Yasin has been driving taxis for ten years. Before that he had had a decade on the buses. Like Akram, his dad had come over from Mirpur to work in factories in the 1960s. He works out of the airport taking holiday-makers to and fro. About three hundred taxis ply their trade from there. “There are lots of Pakistani drivers, but others who are English, Indian, Sikh, Bangladeshi and Somalian. Just never any Chinese.” He gets about four or five journeys a day; things always vary but over a month he clears around £2,000. He likes the flexibility that taxi driving gives him as compared to the set shifts he had to work on the buses. But even with the long hours he doesn’t earn a great deal and he has to support his children as they go through university and college. That’s why he has not been on holiday for ten years. “You have to make sacrifices for your kids.”
It is not just Pakistanis who enter the taxi trade. Others like Abdul, find their way in there too. Born in Somalia he and his family left the country after the collapse of the government in 1991 and arrived in Germany. Abdul grew up in Bonn; he speaks fluent German. The family moved to the UK at the turn of the century and he has lived in Birmingham for the last fourteen years. He studied at Aston University but has been taxi driving for four years. He likes the freedom and the flexibility despite the long hours he works.
“The reason most people migrate is to get a better life for themselves and their family. In that sense they are economic migrants, even if they are fleeing persecution and repression.”
As a job, driving often has flexibility, which means that migrants can combine it with other work. Arron’s family had grown up in East Africa, returned to India and then migrated to the UK. His dad worked as a car mechanic and then become one of the emerging generation that taught itself about IT. At the start of the dot.com bubble he was able to get work in a school as an unqualified assistant teaching kids about computers. But to make up his wages and support his family, at the same time he worked as a self-employed driver delivering newspapers to businesses all over the city in the middle of the night. He would work from midnight till five in the morning in a large warehouse full of ‘freshies’ - newcomers to the country. This was hard, physical work, sorting the papers and delivering to petrol stations and shops. He would arrive home, sleep for an hour or two and then teach IT for the rest of the day. This helped with the family finances but did little for domestic harmony or father-son relations. As Arron ruefully recalls,
“He did that newspaper job for eighteen years which had a big impact on his family and on his relations with me.”
Fruit picking and Food Processing
Some of these 3D jobs are more gruelling and exploitative than others. Often, it is newcomers, desperate to earn some money and make a living, who accept these jobs. For more than a decade, this has been the East Europeans, above all the Poles.
The fruit and vegetable picking industries and food processing are notorious for some of the worst conditions. Tomasz is a young Pole from Wroclaw, who studied at university there. Like many of his generation, he was eager to see the world, earn some money and improve his English. He got work via an agency in Poland and went strawberry picking on a large farm in Tamworth, just to the north of Birmingham. He didn’t last long. The farm used lots of Bulgarian and Romanian labour, secured on a contract basis. To get around minimum wage regulations, the farm stipulated their expectation of what weight of fruit produce would be picked within an hour. Tomasz found that he was only able to pick well below the required weight within a given hour. The farm assessed the wages based on the overall weight of produce that each person had picked, so if it took you eight hours to pick the weight of fruit the farm said you should pick in four hours, then they paid you just for four hours work and the other hours were put down as ‘rest.’ This is the type of shady practice that is rife in casualised labour markets. When he objected to this practice, he was told that he had the option to leave. The Romanians overseeing the site, told him that it suited them as they would be able to pick more fruit later in the season when the strawberries were bigger and reach the targets more easily. The Romanians and Bulgarians would stay for the full eight month period and hope to achieve higher quotas and pay in the peak growing season.
Anita’s first experience with the food processing industry was brutal. She is a working class woman in her early fifties who has lived and worked all her life in Gdynia a sea port on the Baltic coast of Northern Poland. Her husband left her when her daughter was two years old and gave her no financial support so she brought up her daughter on her own, working at the same time. Anita worked in industry with her main job being on an assembly line making lamps for a German company. With her daughter at university, she emigrated after she lost her job and applied for many others with no success. After a two year spell of care work in Greece, she came back to Gdynia but still found no work; did three months working on a mushroom farm in the Netherlands; and then saw a job advertised in England. In December 2007 she flew into Stansted for a promised job in the pottery industry. However, the contact at the airport did not materialise and she realised she had been conned. But she had friends already working in Birmingham, who told her to get a bus to the city.
She arrived in Birmingham on Saturday and on Monday morning she had a job as a food processor, sorting potatoes. In the 1950s and 1960s, the British government advertised for foreign labour in the local press from Kingston to Karachi via County Cork. In the 21st century, this role has been replaced by the internet and private recruitment agencies. Anita got her work via GB Resourcing a “temporary recruitment provider” based in Birmingham. GB Resourcing was established in 1999 and offers recruitment services throughout the Midlands. It was taken over in December 2012 by Staffline, a national outsourcing organisation which claims ‘to provide people and operational expertise to industry’. GB Resourcing continues to operate and has a Polish web-site http://job.bham.pl/details/company/731/ It offered Anita a job straight away. The workforce met in town and they were taken on a bus to a factory outside the city more than an hour away. The potatoes were being washed on a tray and the workforce then separated and sorted them.
“The working conditions were appalling. We were standing in water up to our ankles, or had water dripping down our backs or on our heads. We were wet all the time.”
There were no technical requirements for the job apart from stamina. As far as Anita could tell the main criteria for employment was that no-one among the workforce spoke English, so they could barely communicate with each other. They normally worked twelve hours a day at the factory, sometimes fourteen, for six days a week. Anita got £1,000-1,200 a month, which was good money compared to what she was used to but amounted to a fraction of the legal minimum wage.
She eventually got a transfer to a factory based in Aston, Birmingham packaging food and vegetables for sale by the big supermarkets like Morrisons and Tesco. Compared to the previous job it was like working in heaven; there was no standing in water; less travel; and more social working hours.
Thirty miles to the South of Birmingham lies the Vale of Evesham, one of the agricultural centres of England. There are a number of quite large family farms here that concentrate on two or three crops such as spring onions. The really big players are a couple of agri-businesses with farms of 4-5,000 acres. Three quarters of the plums grown on the Vale are produced by one business. There are relatively few small producers left on the Vale. Roger is one of them. He farms just over seventy acres here, of which he owns fifty five. He has been here for nearly three decades and grows a lot of veg all the year round, notably potatoes, asparagus, peas, beans, purple sprouting broccoli and cabbage with tomatoes in the greenhouse and strawberries, currants and cherries in the early summer before the plums – his main crop - arrive in August. 80% of his plums go to the wholesale market but the bulk of his vegetables he sells directly through the forty local farmers’ markets that he attends every month, including several in South Birmingham. Most market gardeners have a few crops that they grow on a large scale. Roger does a lot of crops on a small scale. That works very well for him. On one thing Roger is absolutely clear.
”We could not survive without migrant labour. This is central to my business. And it is similar for other small holders in the Vale. We couldn’t rely on local people. Locals want to do other stuff especially in the summer. According to the official figures in Wychavon the unemployment rate is 1%. Therefore, there are no local sources for labour.”
Seasonal labour has changed over the last three decades. He has always used it. In 1982 it was either local or travellers, with little in the way of foreign labour. Then for a while there were Asians bussed in from Birmingham, who were very badly paid. After 2000 they began to get more East Europeans. who are now the dominant source of labour on the Vale. For a while he used the government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme but when they put their fees up for small producers he opted out and now employs his foreign staff directly.
He knows that not all those on these schemes have a written contract that sets out hours per week and wages.
”Some of the farms are a bit naughty. If they don’t need them, then they limit their working hours. And sometimes they charge a lot for accommodation.”
Roger uses four Bulgarians for six months of the year with the manager staying all the year round. He has three or four regular part-time workers who are local and do two or three days a week all the year round. For the East Europeans he provides accommodation on site, two caravans for which he charges £15 per week. The working hours vary, something over forty five hours a week; sometimes rising up to seventy. He pays £6.50 an hour. Other small holdings pay similar wages. He has been very satisfied with their work; a number of the people have returned the following year; and there have been relatively few problems with the language, partly because Roger has often recruited university graduates who understood some English, even if at the start they did not speak too well. Furthermore, over fifteen years there have been almost no incidents in town with the locals.
Christo has been working on Roger’s market garden in Evesham since 2009. Originally a management student from Veliko Tarnovo, a town of 70,000 people in Central Bulgaria, Christo came to England on a government seasonal agricultural workers scheme in 2008 after completing his management course. He now stays for the whole year and manages three other Bulgarians who work half the year on the farm. It is arduous and sometimes dangerous work. Christo has been in hospital twice, once when he fell from a tree while picking plums. But there was no problem with the Health Service, no request for papers. He enjoys the work and it means he can put his management training to good use.
“I do not want to return to Bulgaria, I am keen to stay in UK. I like the job I have.”
Simona came in 2014. Her family is happy for her to be working in the UK. She estimates that she works sixty to seventy hours a week. Both she and Christo are able to save money each month and both earn a lot more here than they would in Bulgaria. She contacts people at home every week using the Internet, Skype or Weibo. The reality of modern communication technologies means that
“We can keep in touch easily now. The gap of being away from home is a lot less than it was. Sometimes we send some money home.”
They often go into Evesham on a Sunday and meet some locals. They echo Roger when they say,
“We find no trouble.”