Migrant women speak out about working life in the UK over the last 60 years

8 March 2016

Migration to and from the UK has always been a central part of the history of the UK, but according to a new book, previous narratives have largely ignored the everyday experiences of women. An Oxford professor aims to set the record straight, in focussing on the voices of 74 working women who have settled in the UK at different times over the last 60 years. Their accounts document their struggles to overcome discrimination and disadvantage to rebuild their lives.

The book, Migrant Women's Voices: talking about life and work in the UK since 1945, is based on oral histories from face-to-face interviews. They describe their journeys, their lives after migration, and the world of work in factories, hospitals and care homes, banks, hotels, shops, universities or driving buses.

The author Linda McDowell, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford, who received a CBE in the New Year's Honours lists 2016 for services to Geography and Higher Education, collected all the stories through interviewing the women between 1992 and 2012. Their female perspective challenges conventional histories and geographies of post-war change in British society. The book tells of dispossession, hunger, violence and rape, but also the joy of rebuilding lives, establishing families and forging new ties with the community into which they settle.

‘In the increasingly rancorous debates about the impact of migrants and possible Brexit, women migrants are seldom heard,’ Professor McDowell says. ‘More than 70 women tell their stories in their own words, revealing the enormous contribution they have made to this country, not only through their waged work but also through making the UK a more diverse, tolerant country. The migration rhetoric is sometimes negative, particularly recently, but my hope is that these inspiring stories of “ordinary” but inspiring lives will help challenge some of the negativity around the impact of migration in the UK.’

The book includes stories of female refugees who came to Britain at the end of World War II; of the boat people from Vietnam; the migrants from Pakistan and India after independence; those expelled by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin; and refugees who sought sanctuary after the Balkan war at the end of 1990s. Jewish women were given a home and work in the 1930s; and women and men from the Baltic States were transformed from asylum-seekers into what were termed ‘European Volunteer Workers’ and employed to assist in the post-war reconstruction efforts. Others featured include refugees after the Hungarian crisis in 1956, and East African people of South Asian heritage who came over in the mid-1960s.

Professor McDowell said: ‘Some of these women walked halfway across Europe; others struggled in independence movements, seeing their fathers or husbands assassinated for their beliefs. Famine, wars, escape from sexual violence, or the search for employment were reasons for coming here. As economic integration continues and global businesses seek labour across ever wider spaces, migration seems likely to increase. In recent decades woman have been an increasing proportion of the total number and the quiet heroism of their everyday lives deserves far greater recognition.’

The book charts various transformations in the world of work for women migrants: In the immediate post-war years, as many British women were leaving the labour market, women migrants were joining it, some as employees in the newly expanding public sector including the NHS. In the second half of the 20th century, many more women went to work as standards of living rose and a second income became more of a norm. Women stayed at school longer, went to university, and worked for wages for longer periods over their lifetime. By the start of the 21st century, jobs in the services had overtaken manufacturing. In the UK, by 2011, more than eight in every ten women workers were employed in the service sector. Recently, however, the post-crisis austerity programme and cuts in public sector budgets since 2008 have reduced women’s options. The book suggests that migrant women are often in jobs that typically white women preferred not to do, some of them dubbed it the ‘dirty work’ of caring for others. Even migrants who arrived with qualifications found themselves restricted to low-paid work, at least initially. Some women lawyers, bankers and doctors from both Old and New Commonwealth countries have found that their opportunities have been limited because of discrimination on the basis of gender rather than nationality, argues the book.

For an interview with Professor McDowell or for more information, please contact the University of Oxford News office on 01865 280534 or email: [email protected]

Notes for Editors:

  • Migrant Women’s Voices: Talking about Life and work in the UK since 1945 is published by Bloomsbury Press.
  • The migrants featured in the book are mainly from countries in the former British Empire. Their lives have been spent in typically low paid jobs in caring for others, on the buses, in factories, waiting at tables, or, for the more fortunate or better qualified, teaching in schools and universities or working in banks, in libraries or operating theatres. It provides insight into the role they have played in British society since the end of the Second World War.
  • Endorsements of the book:
    ‘The huge and sustained increase in women’s economic activity rates is widely regarded as the social revolution of the second half of the 20th century. In Britain, first and second generation immigrant women were in the vanguard of this change, Linda McDowell uses interviews collected over several decades with over 70 women migrants from a variety of countries and backgrounds to provide a fresh lens on this cataclysmic shift. The interviews, brilliantly woven together, provide compelling stories of loss, struggle, fortitude and hope as well as palpable evidence of migrant women’s contributions to British society’ (Jane Humphries, University of Oxford, UK)
    ‘From textile mill workers of the 1940s, shopkeepers of the 1950s, to the nannies and investment bankers of the 1990s and software developers of today, the narratives reveal experiences of loss, displacement and exploitation, but also aspirations, dignity and achievements.’(Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, University of Southern California, USA)
    ‘From wartime refugees from Eastern Europe and hopeful women from the Caribbean, brought by the government to rescue the economy and build health and welfare services after 1945, to 21st century migrants from many cultures and countries, they have made indispensable contributions to sustaining the NHS and other essential services, even banking. Whatever their colour or skills, they have faced hostility and consignment to lower-paid, lower-status work than they merit’ (Pat Thane, King’s College, London)
  • Linda McDowell
    Professor McDowell is an economic geographer interested in the connections between economic restructuring, labour market change and class and gender divisions in the United Kingdom. She has been at the forefront in the development of feminist perspectives on contemporary social and economic change, as well as in the development of feminist methodologies and pedagogic practices. She has published widely in both geographical and feminist journals and is the author or editor of numerous books, including Capital Culture (Blackwell, 1997), Gender, Identity and Place (Polity, 1999), Redundant Masculinities? (Blackwell, 2003), Hard Labour: The Forgotten Voices of Latvian Volunteer Workers (UCL Press, 2005) and Working Bodies: Interactive Service Employment and Workplace Identities (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).Professor McDowell has a long-standing commitment to the diffusion of the social sciences and in her career to date has taught both conventional and adult students across a range of subjects, including social policy, urban and women's studies as well as geography.
  • The interviews at the heart of the book were funded by grants from the Economic and Social Research Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and St John’s College Research Centre. Short extracts from some of these women’s stories were included in two of her earlier books, but this is the first time that the women’s voices have been presented in full or at greater length. More recent interviews were also conducted to capture the diversity of the labour market as casual, zero hours contracts became more common and as the origins of the migrants became increasingly diverse.