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An untrodden path: getting Muslim women into work

This is a guest post by Anya Hart Dyke, Senior Research Fellow, Quilliam Foundation

It’s neither un-Islamic nor dishonourable to work, according to Quilliam’s latest report, Immigrant, Muslim, Female: Triple Paralysis?, containing a poll of more than 600 South Asian Muslim women, the vast majority of whom were born in the Indian subcontinent (63% of whom immigrated as spouses). Although 24% stated they need more support from their family in order to consider work, and 22% that it was their husband’s/ family’s decision for them not to work, this is likely to stem from concern about the women managing their domestic and childcare responsibilities than necessarily reflect a community’s disapproval of a woman’s presence in the marketplace. 49% stated they can’t work because of their domestic responsibilities – suggesting expectations of the woman’s role in the home. But you would find this elsewhere in British society – it is certainly not exclusive to the South Asian Muslim communities.

What’s more, 57% want to work – the number may well be higher but they may not feel that a job is within their grasp – and 56% see work as a break from domestic life: to meet new people; become more independent; or to relieve boredom, rather than having ambitions for careers. The good news then is that these women want to challenge the status quo and with the right support, undoubtedly aspirations will grow. And while there is much to do, 65% identified practical support as the means by which they felt they could become employable – primarily in the form of childcare and English language support – so this is all achievable. But also essential; Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim women suffer the highest rates of economic inactivity in the UK.

Whilst the report makes numerous recommendations geared at improving outreach, engagement and progression for English language learners, over-shadowing this are the recent Government cuts to English language (ESOL) beginners’ classes. The thinking is that ‘priority learners’ should be those who stand a chance of becoming proficient in English to a level where they can pass the citizenship test and go on to further education, as well as, most importantly, enter the job market. But arguably it is those at beginners’ level who, not being equipped to work in better-paid jobs, will decide they are ‘better off on benefits’. Not only is this a drain on the state, but it has a whole host of repercussions for both integration with the wider community and for involvement in the ‘developmental processes’ of these women’s children – notably their education and schooling.

The Government’s role as a coordinator in ESOL provision is key, especially via Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) and linking up with JobCentre Plus offices to both map learners in the area and ensure their progression onto other courses, and into employment. Where ESOL provision is left to disparate local organizations there is neither the oversight, nor the access to specialist expertise and partnerships with service providers across the locality. How can this work? Moreover, how much money is spent per annum by the Government on translation services be they in jobcentres, local authorities, or service providers on the ground? I read a couple of days ago in the Evening Standard that the Metropolitan Police estimate that the force’s translation services could cost the taxpayer as much as £20million by 2012 – that’s just for one year, only for the police and for the capital alone.

Poor English has also impacted on uptake of formal childcare offered by Government-supported service providers. Families are unfamiliar with the system, do not appreciate the developmental benefits to the child (and also the advantages of mixing with other children in pre-schools), and cannot communicate with service providers about their options. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DSCF) has attempted to increased the uptake of childcare among BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities but a glaring omission in their work seems to be the need amongst BME communities for the Government’s ‘Training and Learning for Work scheme’, as they focus instead on getting these women working in order to reclaim ‘working’ tax credits for childcare. And certainly it may be unwise to put off learning, training or working until the children are either in secondary school or have left school since there’s the impending task of caring for ageing parents and in-laws.

The Government has invested millions into ethnic minority employment pilots, with mixed success. But will lessons learned reach JobCentre Plus advisers on the ground in their one-on-one contact with ethnic minority jobseekers? Currently, they are over-stretched and under-supported in their understanding of the learning, training and support needs of ethnic minority job seekers’. Of concern is that outreach to these communities, often via local organizations, is being scaled back. But these women are unlikely to make their way independently to the job centre – in the words of one of the community organizations we spoke to, ‘sometimes we have to go door-to-door to accompany women across the road to the project’s centre’. So this is about culturally-sensitive engagement and tailored support.

And what do we want the recruiters to do? Recruitment in the public sector among BME communities – ‘positive action’ strategies – must differentiate between ethnic groups in a given locality. Any calculation of the BME population in a given area must take into account the specific demographics of each minority to factor the proportion of those who are of working age into a recruitment strategy, as well as consider the rates of unemployment amongst them. Employers across the board could be more flexible in their recruitment. They could emphasize qualities as well as qualifications and (transferable) skills over experience with a particular institution or company. Where there are English language needs, why not consider ESOL for staff as part of the budget for their training and development budget? Where applicants are equal in merit, employers could take into account whether these women are either resident, enrolled on a training course, or have a child going to (pre-) school or a crèche, in the local area, to enable them to work at all. Where multiple journeys are not practicable, one of the functions of childcare – to free up the mother to work – becomes redundant.

So above and beyond improving the individual circumstances of the women involved, the larger picture must be kept in mind: to de-ghettoize communities; to raise socio-economic levels amongst some of the poorest communities in the UK; to undermine the far-right extremist narrative of immigrants as a drain on state resources; to enable these women to ensure their children’s safe passage into the British mainstream and; to give these women a voice – quite literally – in the debate about Islam in the UK, one that is currently dominated by men but also extremely vociferous Islamists. We all have a stake in this; act now or store up (yet more) problems for the future.

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