Saturday, 1 May 2010

Election 2010: Immigrant Stories

Evening Standard columnist Jackie Annesley wrote an interesting little piece last week…
“DISHWASHERS – how come they always break down in the holidays? A call to Miele and a few days later Santosh from the Punjab via east London arrives on our doorstep. Here is a man who was top of his class at school, who got so many immigrant points as a genius mechanical engineer that both the US and England offered him residency. He used to invent robotic toys for a British company until the Chinese swiped the work. Now he’s done changing filters that I could have done myself if only I had bothered to read the manual. As Frank Fields (Labour MP) bangs on again about cutting immigration, we should be thankful that Santosh and his brainy children are contributing to London life. Our failing is that we aren’t putting his intelligence – and those like him – to better use.”
…brought to mind a guy I recently met at a nightclub. ‘Praveen’ is from Calcutta and is a nightclub photographer selling key rings with little picture holders for £3 a pop. He is paid £5.50 an hour. Praveen has been in London for 8 months and has an MSc in Bio-Medical Sciences. “Disillusioned” with India, he came to London on the Highly Skilled Migrant Program. He’s applied everywhere to no avail but is philosophical about his circumstances; “My pride’s obviously suffered a bit but overall, things are okay. I do two jobs (the other is as a shelver at ASDA) and life’s comfortable.”

And contrary to what David Cameron says, Praveen is convinced Britain is not quite broken. “Whatever the difficulties, England is a fair and very compassionate country; I can’t stand the corruption and hypocrisy in India. So I’m happy to be a nightclub photographer than a researcher in India”, says Praveen, adding, “Gordon Brown is a good man and overall, Labour has made this a pretty fair country. He has handled the recession also very well; a lot of people have praised him for it but people in this country don’t recognize that. I’m definitely voting for Brown.”

Praveen’s unusual in that he can actually explain what Quantitative Easing is; the vast majority of us (this author included) have little time or inclination to understand such things, let alone vote; a fact that’s reflected in a new BBC Asian Network poll which showed that only 44% of Asians will cast their ballot on May 6.

Going by the opinions expressed by immigrants who ARE going to vote, it seems their choice of candidate is more likely to depend on how much of an impact that particular candidate has had on the immigrant’s life, than any broad policies promoted by the parties.
Some recent examples…

The Indian Work Permit Holder
An Indian friend – a work permit holder – who has been in Britain for the last 5 years, recently managed to get his first mortgage after 3 years of carefully building up his credit rating and saving up for the deposit. He got himself on the voter roll 3 years ago but only so that he could get himself a credit card. A few weeks ago he was still short of around £4000 for the deposit but went ahead with finalizing the paperwork, hoping to scrape the funds together; just then, Mr Darling of the peculiar eyebrows fame, announced that he was going to give my friend £2500 by scrapping stamp duty on houses valued up to £250,000. He has never voted in his life – in India or Britain – and he has little understanding of what any of the parties stand for. That one move by Alastair Darling however has won him another vote.

The ‘Systems Integrator...
Malintha is 42 and used to be an advertising executive in his native Sri Lanka. His wife is a bank manager, his son is at a good school; they have their own house in Colombo. Things were good. But a friend mentioned that things could improve significantly if he went to London; go there on a student visa, get the wife on a dependent visa and things would just be hunky dory. Malintha applied to an obscure college in North London in 2007 and came to Great Britain on the pretext of studying Systems Integration or something like that. He was hoping to secure a job in Sales or Marketing. In the entire time he’s lived in London, he has not so much as attempted to find out what Systems Integration means, let alone study it. In any case the college that he paid £600 to was shut down in early 2009.

He works 65 hours a week at a supermarket and two off license shops (legally he can only work 20). Whatever time he has to himself he spends fretting, wondering what he’ll do if he’s found out. He hasn’t seen his son or wife in 3 years; he’s overworked, underpaid, stressed out but admitting defeat and returning to Sri Lanka will be a huge blow to his pride and his family’s ‘standing’. He’s convinced that Labour will be defeated by the ‘Right-Wing’ conservatives and the streets of Britain will be swarming with Border Agency officials in knife-proof jackets and belts stuffed with Victorinox multi-tools asking people for ‘documents’. So he’s launched his own campaign, to promote the Labour party; pleading with everyone he meets to vote for Brown.

The ‘Reverse-Xenopobe’
Desmond is a Burgher from Sri Lanka. He came to London in 1958, in the days when people had to travel for weeks on creaking steam ships. His first memory of England was of a cheery immigration officer asking him if he would like to settle in Britain, to which Desmond replied, “I’ll have a look see and think about it”. That response today would result in a swift flight back home. Desmond subscribes to the Tory line that ‘Britain is Broken’ and is convinced this is due in large part to unchecked immigration during the last 13 years. He proudly calls himself a ‘reverse xenophone’ (whatever that is) and abhors South Asian migrants, including his fellow Sri Lankans. “They keep jumping the queue at the bank and the post office”, says Desmond. “They spit on the street, they can’t put together a proper English sentence and they’ve just given this country a bad name”. He constantly alludes to the ‘good old days’ and condemns new immigrants for paying little or no attention to learning English, English sensibilities, not assimilating in general and getting up to mischief. Desmond is certain his vote, along with those of ‘disillusioned Britain’ will ensure a Conservative victory and all these unsavoury immigrants will be pushed into the sea.

The first-time mother
The NHS is always a major issue during elections. Labour like to point out that more money has been invested in the NHS in the past 13 years than at any time in the history of the service. The Tories, while acknowledging that fact, say the money has not been invested properly and the NHS is still a model of IN-efficiency. Sadaf thinks otherwise. She’s from Pakistan and has lived in Britain for 9 years. She recently gave birth to her first child at a hospital in North London. She is astonished at the level of care and service offered by the NHS and can’t understand all the criticism aimed at the service. It shocks her that a service that sent a midwife to her house for weeks after the birth to help her, is consistently described as being in a horrible state. She says people should visit places like Pakistan and even the United States (where she studied) and see for themselves what a blessing the NHS is. She’s definitely voting Labour and says “Everything is Relative”.

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- Vijitha Alles