Category Archives: Inequality

Takeaway Lives

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).

Pizza KingHasan, 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

This article originally appeared in Emel Magazine, February 2008, Issue No. 41.

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A Note to the Bishop: Self Segregation is a Myth

As Atif Imtiaz reminds us, Britain is the land of Hume. So, in response to the Bishop of Rochester, let’s look at some empirical evidence, which shows that self-segregation is a myth.

The most accurate data set around is the decennial national census. There are around 8000 electoral wards in England. In 1991, 57 wards had a minority white population and 15% of all non-white residents lived in them. In 2001, 118 wards had a minority white population and 23% of non-white residents lived in them. In the year before the last census in 2001, more non-white residents moved out of these 118 wards than white ones (14,716 verses 9747 respectively).

So we don’t have self-segregation at all. We have the mundane phenomenon of dispersal.

First, white and non-white residents move out of the inner cities when they can afford better housing and commuting costs. This usually happens in middle age. So if everyone generally moves when they can afford to, it can’t necessarily be put down to cultural tensions.

Second, the number of mixed neighbourhoods (or electoral wards) is increasing. Between 1991 and 2001, they grew from 864 to 1070. Also minority white wards are also still mixed wards: they are not segregated. So we’re getting less not more segregated.

Third, inequalities experienced by non-white residents whether in majority-white, mixed or minority-white wards are broadly similar. This shows that geography and ethnic mix are not salient factors in creating inequality. The employment rate of non-whites is roughly twice as high as whites in all these three sorts of ward. So ethnic differentials in poverty aren’t a function of these mythical ghettos either!

So it seems that if there aren’t really any no-go areas as such, just the ones that people like the Bishop of Rochester like to dream up in their heads.

Source: Ludi Simpson, “The Numerical Liberation of Dark Areas”, Sage Race Relations Abstracts, 31/2: 5-25 (2006).

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Sir Trevor, the Muslims and the new Equalities Commission

Why should the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR), to be launched in 2007, matter to British Muslims? Covering race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religion and human rights, with an annual budget of £70m, the CEHR will be Europe’s largest human rights body. The basic reason is that it addresses a thirty-year gap in race relations legislation that did not recognise religious origin as part of the definition of an ethnic group. This particularly affected Muslims as they were defined as a multiethnic religious group, which was not ‘legally true’ of Sikhs, Hindus or Jews (even if sociological fact is more complex).

The 2001 Census uncovered the painful fact of systemic Muslim disadvantage, the alleviation of which is still not campaigned for seriously by any of our lobby umbrella groups. A large proportion of British Muslims form an underclass. Some of the key statistics are:

• One-third live in the top 10% of most deprived areas in the UK
• Live in ‘deprived’ housing (41%), the most overcrowded (32%), the most in social rented housing (28%), and the highest proportion without central heating (12%) of any faith group
• Report the highest rates of ill health – 14% – of any faith group
• Unemployment rate (14%) is three times the national average. Muslims aged 16-24 had the highest umemployment rate of all (22%), twice the national average
• 31% of Muslims of working age have no qualifications. 14% have GCSE or equivalent qualifications (compared to national average of 22%), 12% have A-level or equivalent qualifications (compared to national average of 24%), and 4% have degrees compared with 9% of the general population
• Muslims of working age have the highest rates of economic inactivity: for men (30%) and for women (68%) compared to 16% of Christian men and 25% of Christian women

Ours is also a very young community, with over half under the age of 25. With all the political pressures around at present, tackling basic issues of inequality has become all the more difficult to achieve. And achieving this is even more vital if we are not going to fail our next generation.

The expectation has been that an extension in equalities legislation to cover religion and other strands as well as a new equalities commission would constitute a bulwark against all forms of inequality in British society. Discrimination in employment on the grounds of religion had already been covered back in 2003 as a result of harmonization with EU law (an advance that had nothing to do with lobbying by British Muslim groups at all). But the inclusion of a religion strand, and its shape and form, in current and upcoming equalities legislation was partly the result of discreet lobbying behind the scenes. This extends protection in the delivery of public goods and services on non-discriminatory grounds to religious groups. It is hoped that in future a new Single Equalities Act would enforce a positive duty to promote equality across all the strands making up the remit of the new Commission, including on the grounds of faith.

The arrival of the new Commission has been viewed with great reservations, particularly by the anti-racism movement, as the Commission for Racial Equality would be absorbed by it. Sir Trevor Phillips, the current Chair of the CRE, recognised this concern by successfully lobbying to get a stay of execution for the race watchdog keeping it out for an additional two years until 2009, arguing that its work was still vital in the current climate. It was therefore with some alarm, expressed by groups like the 1990 Trust and Stonewall among others, that Sir Trevor was announced as the first head of the new CEHR this month. In his previous campaign to preserve the CRE, Sir Trevor had himself described the CEHR as a ‘train wreck waiting to happen’. His change of heart looks very sudden.

There are two main qualms about this appointment. The first is Sir Trevor’s willingness to grab the attention of the more lumpen elements of the press with soundbites that stereotype Muslims (as well as other ethnic minority communities). This tendency only became publicly apparent after his appointment to the CRE, although seasoned activists noted Sir Trevor’s resistance to the faith agenda back in the late 1990s. Some of his statements include:

• In 2003, echoing the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, he called for Muslim extremists to be deported (even before Britain had agreed memoranda of understanding with certain Muslim countries to prevent the torture or execution of deportees, which groups like Amnesty International say have no real force or validity)

• Calling for an end to multiculturalism in April 2004, which for Sir Trevor suggested ‘separateness’, a call welcomed as a ‘paradigm shift’ by the British National Party (yet multiculturalism should rather be defined as integration with variable geometries for Britain’s various and diverse communities)

• In a major speech in 2005, he misrepresented a complex issue as ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ between various ethnic or religious groups as primarily a matter of choice (But the basic facts are far from agreed, e.g. Ludi Simpson at Manchester University, argues that ‘racial self-segregation and increased racial segregation are myths for Britain’. Some say that the key factor is not segregation as such but segregation plus poverty which does apply to some of our Muslim communities according to a 2006 review of the evidence base on faith communites.)

Muslim faith schools threaten the coherence of British society (January 2005) while suggesting that black boys needed special booster classes to get better educational results (March 2005)

British Muslims willing to live by the values of Shariah law were told to move abroad (February 2006)

In addition to all these pejorative comments, Sir Trevor has not said or done enough to look at the impact of policing and anti-terrorism measures on Muslim communities during his tenure. This was particularly noticeable after 7/7, with the CRE maintaining a studious silence throughout the summer, even on areas that it regards as within its direct competence such as shoot-to-kill and stop-and-search policies. In sum, these sorts of interventions have demonstrated the closeness of Sir Trevor with the government of the day. It is clearly in the public interest that the CEHR is — and is seen to be — politically independent.

The second major qualm has been the virtual ending of proper legal enforcement through the courts of defaulters against race relations legislation in Sir Trevor’s time at the CRE. This is a very serious matter, as it is by no means provable that a co-operative, negotiated approach (said to be the preferred approach at the CRE nowadays) will do anything to change recalcitrant public and private institutions. The figures speak for themselves:

CRE – Cases with Full Legal Representation against alleged discrimination
2003 81
2004 28
2005 03

The implications of this ‘softly-softly’ approach for the CEHR look ominous.

What a shame it is that the tipsters’ second-favourite for the job, the redoubtable Shami Chakrabarti, the widely-respected human rights campaigner and current Director of Liberty, was pipped to the post by Sir Trevor. In the first flush of power back in 1997, New Labour seemed willing to delegate genuine power to major institutions such as granting the ability to the Bank of England to set interest rates. Nine years on, it seems much more inclined to play it safe with trusted ‘old hands’. A troublemaker of the best sort in Chakrabarti might have done much to strengthen human rights culture in Britain and to have created a robust institution tasked with helping to create a more inclusive and equal society.

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