Britain Asian Muslim women
All about taking part
A hidden explanation for Britain’s surprising job numbers: Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are finally surging into the labour market
In an upstairs room at the Jagonari women’s centre in eastLondon, six women in colourful headscarves grin as an instructor enunciates simple English phrases from a whiteboard. The women are mostly new immigrants from Bangladesh, who are being taught English as part of the centre’s “positively integrated” programme. In other classes they will learn how to deal with doctors, police officers and council officials, how to use public transport and how to claim benefits. The idea is to help them find their way around British society—and eventually find jobs.
Britain’s 450,000 Bangladeshis and 1.1m Pakistanis, who began to arrive in large numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, suffer from a huge penalty that is partly self-imposed. Whereas Pakistani and Bangladeshi men have employment rates roughly comparable to black men, the women’s employment rate is around half that of other ethnic-minority women. Lack of a second income is the main reason why more than half of Bangladeshi and Pakistani families live below the official poverty line, and why so many rely on welfare payments to top up their income. The broader cost to Britainof the economic and social marginalisation of so much of its Muslim population is huge. Yet there are some encouraging signs of change.
A combination of traditional culture and modern prejudice keeps women out of work. Many still feel that it is the husband’s role to provide for the family. Even if they want to work, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are often expected to do a lot of cleaning, cooking and taking care of children, which leaves little time for a job. Village habits die hard: married women still tend to move in with their in-laws, who sometimes jealously restrict their freedom. Staff at the Jagonari centre report encounters with women who are not allowed to learn to drive or even to leave home alone.
Then there is an “ethnic penalty” in hiring. Some 30% of Bangladeshi women who want to work are unemployed. Even well-educated women with Islamic names can struggle to get interviews, says Shaista Gohir, a director at the Muslim Women’s Network. Many employers are reluctant to hire women they fear will leave to take care of children. For new migrants, meanwhile, poor English and weak formal education are huge barriers to work, crowding those women who do so into poorly-paid and menial jobs.
According to the Labour Force Survey, though, the number trying to find work is increasing surprisingly fast. Since 2008, whenBritainentered a deep recession, the proportion of Pakistani women active in the labour market has increased from 29% to 43%. For Bangladeshi women, the trend dates back further (see chart). Many have merely moved from complete inactivity to unemployment, but there have been sizeable jumps in the proportion who have jobs too. By contrast, the employment rate for white women, at around 68%, has barely changed. Among black African andCaribbeanwomen it has fallen.
Government policy probably explains some of this. Since 2005 new migrants have had to pass basic language and citizenship tests to get permanent leave to remain in theBritain, which has forced many new migrants to learn English. Tax credits—generous welfare payments linked to work—have encouraged women of all races to find jobs, especially those whose husbands earn little.
Just as important, they are settling in. British-born Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are far more likely to be in work than new migrants. And the young generation is rising fast. “There has been a near total transformation of Bangladeshi girls” since 2001, argues Shamit Saggar of the University of Sussex. In the GCSE exams taken at the age of 16, Bangladeshi girls now outperform their white peers. Control for poverty, and they beat almost everyone. Pakistani girls have done less well—probably because they are less concentrated in London, where schools have improved most—but they have gained ground too. More of these well-educated second- and third-generation young women enter the labour force each year.
Meanwhile there is growing awareness of the problems faced by first-generation immigrants. InBirmingham, the council is offering women help to start small businesses, reckoning that home work can fit more easily around family commitments. The Jagonari centre already runs two social enterprises doing similar work.
The main worry, in austerity Britain, is the paucity of cash. Since 2011 English language classes have been free only to those claiming unemployment benefit, which excludes many women claiming other benefits. Welfare is also being squeezed—all benefits are due to rise by less than inflation until 2015. Unless more women go to work, Bangladeshi and Pakistani poverty rates are likely to spiral upwards. “There is so much frustrated ambition”, says Sultana Khanom, one of the workers at the Jagonari centre. It needs to be made use of.