Book Review - Migrant Womens Voices: Talking About Life and Work in the UK Since 1945

Since 6 April 2016 all skilled workers from outside the EU who have been living in Britain for less than 10 years need to earn at least £35,000 a year to settle permanently here, even if they have lived here for years contributing to the UK culture and economy. Some jobs, such as nurses, are exempt. Under the new rules those who have come to work in Britain from outside the EU will be deported after five years if they fail to show they are earning more than £35,000.According to the Independent, which set up a campaign protesting against the measures, these people need a work sponsor, are not entitled to receive public funds, have to pay a health surcharge to access the NHS and must also put up a sizeable fee – sometimes in excess of £1,000 – to have their visas extended by a year.

This hard-line approach is in stark contrast to 1945, when Britain was crying out for migrant labour. It’s also remarkable considering our current dependence on increased spending within the economy and the benefit of migrant labour to the government’s budget. Today’s anti-migrant rhetoric makes Linda McDowell’s exploration of female migration since the end of World War II particularly timely. And, as McDowell observes, ‘immigration and making a living are at the top of many people’s concerns about their own lives and those of their children.’

Migrant Women’s Voices pays testament to the numerous female migrants who contributed to the post-war reconstruction effort and joined the British workforce beyond those austere times. McDowell charts how Britain was transformed into a multi-cultural society following changes in migration patterns from the post-war and post imperial recruits to those fleeing conflict zones and others employed in specific jobs, such as nurses and unskilled workers in the textile industry. In the 40s and 50s many female migrants came here because British-born women left the labour market, encouraged to return to their ‘traditional’ role as wives and mothers and because ‘an alternative labour force’ was required for the jobs they left. However, as McDowell points out: Many people have little ‘idea of the percentage of the UK population that was born abroad (about 13 percent in 2015) and often over estimate it.’

Focusing on 74 women born outside the UK who came here to work, McDowell’s stated aim is ‘to provide a rich and vivid source though which to counter conventional narratives of post-war change as well as to record for posterity individual stories that are in danger of being forgotten.’ The narratives are based on oral histories from face-to-face interviews with migrant women (collected between 1992 and 2012) who talk about their experiences and work in the UK. McDowell chooses to leave their accounts in full which makes for some hard reading at times. Many of the pieces would have benefitted from light editing to remove repetition or for further clarification. For instance, Harshini (born in the Punjab and brought up in Nairobi) describes being accepted for work at the large Ford plant in Dagenham:
At interview, they test me on the machining, machine test. Then they talk ‘why you applied, why you come here, why you work in Ford?’ Then I say ‘I need the money for my children, that’s why I apply. I like to work over here.’ That’s the things we talked, generally talk this, yeah, then they say ‘you take your test in machining.’ When I went on machine, they test me on machine.
The women describe their often difficult journeys here, their struggles to make a new life, the minutiae of their everyday work in hospitals, care homes, factories and hotels, as well as the pressures of working in banks and universities. Furthermore, as the accounts illustrate ‘people of colour and in-migrants, including people from the new European Union member countries, are [often] constructed as the Other, different from the norm, still strangers and sometimes, not always, visibly different and subjected to unequal treatment.’

The level of racism suffered over the decades remains shocking. In the 1960s and 70s post-colonial migrants would often find signs in windows of rooms to rent that read ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs.’ Ellen was born in Hong Kong in 1962 and came to the UK at the end of the 1970s. She was employed in the family fast food business and often had to put up with people calling her ‘chinky.’ Nadia, a Polish woman in her thirties, began work as a bus driver in 2007:
I’ve been called ‘fucking Polish bitch’ many times, many times… So many times I was called bitch. I was called stupid Polish bitch or bloody foreigner or that stuff that is not pleasant. It’s quite sad when you try to do your job properly and you do everything correct and suddenly they just come and attack you and without any reason.
McDowell covers many decades and the variety of work that has, over the years, been available to female migrant workers. Some like Victoria (Singaporean Chinese) took advantage of the employment boom in the computing industry early in the millennium. The employment of migrants to write code became known as ‘bodyshopping.’ One wonders if Victoria would make the new income threshold today. Romanian-born Ani came to the UK in 1993 on a one month visiting scholarship at a university. Later she applied for a doctorate and funded her studies by working as a research assistant in the engineering science department at Oxford, before getting work on a research project. She is now a departmental lecturer. Shami, from India started a doctorate at Oxford in 1988 but found herself having to challenge various conventions. She now works as a community educator and continues to deal with ‘patronising attitudes and racist assumptions.’

Caveats aside, McDowell’s project is admirable, her research thorough and the testimonies amply demonstrate “the huge commitment made to Britain, to its economy and to its population by ‘ordinary’ women … who made the decision to move across national borders and make a life elsewhere.’
Originally published by Review 31