According to officialdom, 37% of working Muslim men are employed in distribution, hotel and the restaurant trades (and one in ten work as taxi drivers) — much more than any other group. What are the implications of such bare statistics, which are hardly ever the matter of sustained reflection among British Muslims? The key issues here are anti-social hours, stressful conditions, poor pay and overly-competitive and saturated markets (and saturated fats).
Hasan, originally from Istanbul, helps to run a takeaway pizza place near De Monfort University in Leicester. He works six days a week from 4pm to 4am or 72 hours a week. Over Christmas, he told me that he had a week off. I asked him if he was going to Turkey to see family and friends and he told me he would take the chance to catch up on lost sleep as he was exhausted. Unsurprisingly, Hasan finds the work dull and repetitive: “each day is different but the work stays the same”. As the evening wears on, the customers tend to be drunker and more abusive. Once I saw him get sworn at gratuitously for no fault of his own and on this occasion he stood up to the abuse. But immediately afterwards he was concerned that he had been rude to do so, and, doubtlessly, there is always the pressure in the background not to lose future custom. Thus the need for personal dignity gets squashed in a competitive business.
Hasan is unmarried but one can imagine how frustrating it would be for a husband and father to be asleep during the day and out of the house all evening and thus largely miss his children growing up. The adverse impact on a good quality of family life seems clear enough. How are spouses and offspring to cope with a virtually absent father? This is a common factor in too many Muslim households.
Then there is huge competition for not much business. On my local high street, there are a high-dozen kebab shops, five “Dallas Chicken”-style joints and a few pizza places – all run by Muslims. Only a few do well and the rest are just ticking over. How many Indian restaurants can you walk past on a weekday evening and see one lonely couple having a curry? How many Muslim taxi drivers wait over half an hour to pick up a ride? In Leicester the Muslim taxi drivers in their black hansom cabs snake back from the train station to the Central Mosque two hundred metres down the road, waiting forlornly for their fares. And then how many sons are going into the family trade with not much chance of better prospects?
Over the last ten years, we’ve had an explosion of chillified halal fried chicken outlets – Dixy Chicken, Dallas Chicken, Maryland Chicken, New Jersey Chicken, Chicken Cottage, Southern Fried Chicken, Halal Fried Chicken, Perfect Fried Chicken etc. The combinations of battery chicken, red chilli powder, breadcrumbs and American federal states seem endless. Even if KFC have had to bring out a zinger burger, behind this success story is the same tale of job insecurity and market saturation. Attempts at creating a franchise model in the halal fried chicken business has failed to consolidate this sector.
Back in 2003, Taflan Dikec set up the National Association of Kebab Shops which aimed to promote a better image of the donner kebab. However it doesn’t seem to have lasted very long: the website records that there were only ever two issues of the Association’s newsletter, Kebab and Fried Chicken. One would have hoped however for something other than rebranding a business sector. Tackling the suspect environmental and diet-unfriendly credentials of the donner or the fried battery-farm chicken as well as the low pay and poor conditions for those working in the industry is more urgent.
There is also, perhaps, the bolstering of cynical attitudes in having to do Friday and Saturday nights week in and week out, and seeing the excesses of binge drinking culture, whether as doctors in A&E, taxi drivers outside the clubs or in the takeaways. This cynicism remains in check in large part by Muslim traditions of hospitality and service, yet one cannot but help think that seeing the sharp end of weekend hedonism does little to encourage a rounded “intercultural understanding”, to employ the current jargon.
It is time to address seriously the social and economic impact of these “takeaway lives”, with their profound implications for family life, social cohesion and economic underdevelopment. Without looking at ways to diversify the business sector or avenues for reskilling and encouraging new kinds of Muslim entrepreneurship it is difficult to see how the general social and economic profile of the community can be improved.
Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and he blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.
This article originally appeared in Emel Magazine, February 2008, Issue No. 41.