The majority of Bengali migrants who settled in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were cultivators, artisans and lascars. The Bengal delta is an extremely fertile place which was extremely prosperous in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jute, tea and silk were produced in Bengal and it was from here that the British Empire expanded over the rest of India. Calcutta was the capital of the British Indian empire until 1912. Through Bengal's great rivers flowed much of the trade between India and Europe, and throughout the Indian Ocean region. That trade was mainly in textiles, since Bengal's fine textiles (such as muslin) were in great demand in the western world. Its rivers and ports were the arteries of this growing trade, and the traditional skills of its boatmen and lascars were a vital resource for a commercial and maritime empire which came to span the world.
It was initially very difficult for the West Bengali Muslims to settle and find work in East Pakistan as the region was not as developed as the part they came from. Those who were educated found work as teachers or administrators. Others bought plots of land, or exchanged land with Hindu migrants who were moving to West Bengal, and started making a living as cultivators. Those who had no money or connections or had lost everything worked as labourers on richer peoples' fields.
As it was traditionally not allowed for Hindus to sail, Bengali and Bihari Muslims were the ones to work on British ships as lascars and many of them lived in the port area of Khidirpur in Calcutta. When they moved to East Pakistan, they tried to find work in the ports of Chittagong or Mongla or they tried to change profession and become, for example, mechanics or cooks.
Most Biharis who migrated to East Pakistan worked either in the railways or in the clothing and textile industry as jari-workers (sari embroiderers) and tailors. The most educated amongst them became lawyers and journalists but the majority of those who live in camps still work as jari-workers, tailors, electricians, car mechanics, cooks. There are signs that this is changing with second and third generation Bihari Bangladeshis finally getting opportunities to try their hands at other jobs.
Md Sher Ali – successful scrap clothing businessman of Syedpur
Md Sher Ali is about 50 years old. He was one of the first to start the clothing scrap/jute waste business in Syedpur. These pieces of cloth are the rejected bits from the clothing factories of Dhaka and are bought not by the metre but by the kilo. Tailors around here use the small pieces to make items such as children's pants or women's blouses.
I came to Syedpur in 1971. Before that I was in Parbatipur where I had a soap factory called the 'Pak Shop'. We're from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh… I have three boys and two girls. I have got my boys working in three different shops in Syedpur. Two-thirds of the shops here are owned by us, the rest by Bengalis.
Abdul Jalil is from Chamra Godown Camp, Niyammatpur in Syedpur. He came to Bangladesh in 1947 from Bhagalpur, in Bihar, India. His first wife died of cholera in 1971. He had three sons from his first wife. His second wife was repatriated to Pakistan with their two daughters. He was meant to go with them but for some reason his name wasn't on the list.
My father was a carpenter, I'm a carpenter, my sons are carpenters, our whole clan is made up of carpenters. We used to live in Parbatipur – like most of the Biharis who now live in Syedpur.
Sufia Begum is a 50 year old teacher who lives with her husband Jinnah bhai and their two children. They live in Dinajpur's New Town, next to Satellite Town. Sufia was born in Borobondor. Her parents had come to East Pakistan in 1956. She has relatives in Ghoraghat, where many people of migrant origin are in the army.
Land in Ghoraghat has never been too good. Because the land did not lend itself to agriculture its men joined the army and then you know how people recruit from amongst their family and neighbours. Also, under Ershad many army officers took up land there and so they pulled the locals into their profession.
The migrants from Chapai [meaning people who live by the river on both sides of the border] are aggressive and are either very rich or very poor, they're very hard-working and ambitious – traits that come from having lost everything. Those who are originally from Rajshahi [in north-west Bangladesh] are soft, but the softest people are those from Dinajpur – they never had to fight for anything.
Those from Chapai are actually from Malda [in India.]. Their main products are mangoes and the wealthiest amongst them have huge mango orchards they either bought from the Hindus or got when they exchanged land. They're brutish and aggressive and very quickly become much wealthier than the locals. The problem is that they're also the ones who bring fundamentalism and have little regard for Adivasis or those who have a different way of life to theirs.
G M Syed Ali – works as fisherman and cultivator in Koikhali near the Sundarbans forest
Syed Ali is from Kalitala, West Bengal, India. Since 1964 he lives in Koikhali in the southern end of the district of Satkhira. He married twice and has five children from his first wife and one daughter from his second wife. He also has three young grandchildren. He started the 'Association for Refugees' in Koikhali.
Nothing would grow on this wretched land. We had been cultivators in India but here we couldn't cultivate anything the soil was so saline, so we used to fish and work as labourers in other peoples' fields. Later with the coming of the Pani Unnayan Board and the BWDA [fishermen's union] with money from the government of Netherlands our lands were drained of their salt and made cultivable. In those early days [between 1964 and 1971] we survived on rations such as paddy, gur, wheat, all provided by the Pakistani government.
Most of the Bengalis who migrated to Britain in the post-War years came because of a shortage of workers. Both men and women worked in the steel and textile industries of the Midlands and north of England, and in the clothing factories of London. These industries suffered severe economic decline in the 1970s and 1980s and many Bengalis moved into the hotel and catering trade, in particular the 'Indian' restaurant business. Even today, over 60% of Bengali men and 20% of Bengali women in employment work in the hotel, restaurant and catering trades – over six times the average rate for these sectors. They are also six times more likely to work in textiles or printing. About 14% of Bangladeshis are self-employed, and only 2% are in higher managerial jobs (compared with 6% for the population as a whole). The Bangladeshi community in Britain also suffers from high levels of unemployment: over 20% for men and 24% for women – four times the level for White British mean and six times the level for White British women. New immigrants from Bangladesh (after 1990) have higher rates of employment than settled Bengalis. There are signs too that this is changing with second and third generation British Bengalis.
Boshir Ahmed (Tower Hamlets): migrating for work
Boshir Ahmed arrived in Britain in 1963 with his uncle for work purposes. Like many Bengali single men who migrated at this time, Boshir travelled around Britain for work and moved jobs often looking for better pay and conditions. His first job was in Darlington in Lancashire in a cotton mill and he then moved to Preston:
I joined a cotton mill, where they would finish off the clothes. I worked there for a while, then I got a better job in the sugar mills. I worked shifts there. There were three shifts, 6 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, 2 in the afternoon to 10 at night and 10 at night to 6 in the morning – the company was running around the clock. It was the best factory in England, and luckily I got the job there.
Boshir later returned home to Bangladesh for several years and on his return moved to Burnley and then Birmingham to work for British Steel. After another visit home, he returned in 1975 and worked for Ford Motor Company. He told us
My movement basically depended on the opportunities available. Say, for example, when I thought I could earn more in Birmingham, I went there.
Nurunnobi Miah (Bradford): working in the cotton mills
Nurunnobi Miah arrived in Britain in 1963 as a teenager and travelled to Bradford with his brother to work in the mills. He told us what it was like for him:
My brother got a job for me in his factory. I got the job after four weeks. In Bangladesh, I was a student. I did not work. Then I got a laborious job in the cotton industry. I was 16. The work was very odd. It was textile industry; they had a cutting machine. And I would work at day time, from 6:30. A huge amount of dust would be created. Although I would work in the day time, with dust-cloud, my face would be like a ghost... I did this job for six months. Sometimes I would cry for doing such a job.
However, he stayed in this work for many years and retired only when the factory closed:
I worked for 31 years. I retired from there. I wanted a good post. So they made me supervisor. Work in the mills was being squeezed and they offered redundancy. In '93, I took retirement. I did not get another job.
He spoke of the changes he had seen in Bradford in the past 45 years:
Earlier, there were many Bengalis In Bradford too. Although people were single, there were many of us. It is because this place was good for employment. There were industries, factories. There were cotton industries. There were textile industries. Where I'm living now and in Yorkshire, there were textile industries and these had good qualities. Now all these have gone. Now Asian people are in the restaurant business. Many curries, fashionable curries have taken their place.
Habib and Wahiduzzaman (Newham): the decline in manufacturing industries
Habib, in his mid 40s when we interviewed him, arrived in Britain in 1976 to join his father. He is a part-time singer, but also owns his own restaurant. Before this, he and his brother owned a clothing factory. He spoke of the shift from garment work to the restaurant businesses in the 1980s:
Before the restaurant, my brother and I worked together in our own factory - a clothing factory that we ran for a long time. Now there are no more clothing factories in this country. That's why we moved into the restaurant business.
Wahiduzzaman, now a driving instructor, also spoke of the reasons why many Bengalis moved out of the clothing industry:
My first job was in a shop, then I worked with my uncle. I think it was in '84 or '85. We started our own small tailoring company not far from Commercial Street [in Tower Hamlets]. We did quite well. We moved to a bigger place in Cardiff. However, the problems started. Salaries in the UK were quite high; lots of orders had gone abroad. That's why we gave up on clothing and manufacturing. I think a lot of Bengali people were involved in tailoring and making clothes and manufacturing but people have moved on and the manufacturing has gone abroad – Morocco, Dubai and Turkey were cheaper, even in Bangladesh lots of manufacturing companies are now working for Marks and Spencers and other companies… Our community that was involved in making clothes back in the 1980s now had to rethink and retrain to do other things.
Monowara Begum (Oldham): women’s work
Monowara Begum is a widow who came to the UK in 1981. Having worked previously in Bangladesh, she was as a machinist and became involved in training other Bengali women in the work. She told us:
At that time, the main work was sewing. Women who came from Bangladesh would be taught how to sew. They hadn't worked back home, so to develop them, to get them out of the home, they had to be trained… We bought sewing machines with government money. We sometimes contributed money to buying cloth. To become a member of the organisation, the women had to pay fees. After training a lot of the women earned money by sewing clothes. People would bring clothes from the main factories and the women would do the work at home. Women could earn a fair amount by doing this.
The restaurant trade
Most jobs for the Bangladeshi community in Britain are in the restaurant trade. Although the trade changes rapidly, it is believed that there are around 12,000 'Indian' restaurants and takeaways in Britain, over 90% owned by Bengalis. They started as small cafés serving local Bengali single men, and the industry grew in the 1980s as other forms of employment declined. The trade employs around 85,000 people and serves over 3 million meals a week.
Amjad Ali (Tower Hamlets): the history of the restaurant trade in Brick Lane
Amjad Ali has lived in Tower Hamlets since he arrived in Britain to join his father in 1973. He told us of the way the restaurant trade developed in the area:
There were tailoring factories up to the '90s. After that, most factories were closed down. Clothing and leather factories closed down. Carpet factories moved to Stratford and Hackney. Tailoring factories, clothes making, this business was taken over by Pakistan, India, Turkey, Morocco. When the factories were closed, the Bengalis were unemployed. Then they entered the restaurant business.
The restaurant business started with 'Sonar Bangla', a restaurant styled shop – tea, chicken curry and one or two items were available… At that time, all the restaurants were café style. We would usually sit, gossip, chat at Sonar Bangla and Nazrul. In the 1980s, the number of restaurants increased. The Bengalis would go there and eat rice. Later, when the economy got better, this area came to the forefront. People started coming to this area. Then the restaurant business also flourished… At first, only Bengalis would eat the food. When the Whites started coming, the restaurant owners presented themselves in different ways.
Mahbubul Alam (Colchester): starting out
Mahbubul Alam, now in his early 70s, was one of the first Indian restaurant owners in Colchester in Essex. He described setting up the restaurant:
See, when I first started the restaurant I didn't know much about the trade. My friend arranged a chef for the restaurant. He would prepare gravy which he would use in every dish from Korma to Kalia to Madraji, everywhere. He used the juice and chilli to make Madraji and if he used more chillis then it would become Vindaloo. English people would eat and say 'Oh! What a curry!' That's how he had done business. But there is competition now; you can't run a restaurant like before. Bengalis are doing very well now. The flavour of the curry has changed, and the way it's prepared. They have invented new dishes, using different experiences. If you are clever you can develop the business.
He was pleased with the growth of the industry in Britain:
The English have become fond of curry; that's good for us; good for Bangladesh and good for India as well; good for the British as a whole. It has become an Industry. In the world, it is now well established that if you go to London, you will get very good curry. It's said that the curry industry is doing business worth £3.5 billion.
Kamal Hossain (Oldham): setting up a restaurant business
Kamal arrived as a child in the UK and is now in his mid 40s. He first set up a restaurant business in 1997 and since 2000 owns his restaurant in Oldham. He told us that he learned about the business by working in the industry:
We Bengalis work in restaurants and by working there we gain experience. People who are educated can learn more quickly. They can learn how to run a restaurant business. It is not difficult.
There are three classes in any area: lower class, middle class and higher class. Among the lower classes, the Whites create problems. They come to eat and there are some problems – their behaviour is not good. Among the middle classes, there are also problems, but not much. Business in the middle class is good because middle class people eat a lot. Many people in that class are employed. When they leave work, they are tired so they order a takeaway. If you can serve quality food and give a quick service, then the business in any area will be successful.
However, he spoke too of the problems of running a profitable business:
Business rates are also high, rents are expensive. Then you have to pay business rates, gas bills, electricity bills, water bills, telephone bills…Then you have to pay wages. So making profit is difficult.
Khaled Ahmed (Oldham): an alternative view
Khaled Ahmed came to Oldham from America in 2003 as a groom and has been working in a restaurant since then. He was very critical of the conditions for workers like himself and his account paints a very different picture from the one above:
The big restaurant owners make a lot of money… Sometimes they sponsor people to come from Bangladesh. After coming here, for two/three months they work there….The owners pay these workers very low wages. It is not fair, we can't accept it. The owners sponsored them to come for their work. They give a lot of reasons (to the government) for bringing them over: worker crisis, a shortage of manpower here. But when the workers come from Bangladesh, the owners don't pay proper wages. It is very unfair. Say, the owners tell people to work for 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week. For these hours, they should get a minimum £300. But they don't get this wage.
He felt strongly that new arrivals, like himself, had no other choice but to work in restaurants:
People coming from Bangladesh have no choice. Even when they are legal, they have no other opportunities. They work full time, but they get half-time wages.
Abul Hashem and Maruf (Newham): working in restaurants
Abul Hashem, in his early 40s, came to Britain in 1994 and later married. He works in a Bangladeshi restaurant in East London and was very critical of the conditions. Like many Bengali restaurant workers we spoke to, he felt that this work was very low status and only suitable for those with no choice:
Working in Indian restaurants is for those who have no other place to go. There is no future for people who work in Indian restaurants. Moreover, it is very hard work. It's not enjoyable. There are many problems with the owners… They are narrow minded. During working hours they are always after you, they are tight in giving food, they have a tight attitude in giving wages. In every aspect they treat you in a disrespectful way.
Maruf came to Britain in 2003 and stayed on illegally, working in restaurants. He criticised the attitude of Sylheti restaurant owners towards their non-Sylheti staff, and described the experiences of restaurant workers like himself, who are in Britain illegally:
If the workers are illegal or unknown, or just arrived in the restaurant, or new to restaurant work, or are in the kitchen, or even in front [as a waiter], they face problems. Some owners don't allow them to rest for a second. They keep the illegal workers under threat. Although I never experienced this personally, I have heard about all these things.
Shoeb Chowdhury (Birmingham) and Ashim Sen (Bradford): the crisis of the restaurant trade
Shoeb Chowdhury owns a restaurant in Birmingham. Like many restaurant owners we interviewed, he spoke of the challenges facing the restaurant trade for the Bengali community. One of these problems is the growth of the trade and increased competition:
At the moment, supply is higher than demand. Say four restaurants are the ideal number in a place with a population of 10,000, we now have 10 restaurants. That's why there is heavy competition. To survive the competition, many of us are under-pricing the menu. Everybody is losing, nobody is gaining.
Another problem is the shortage of staff, because British Bengalis do not want to work in this trade:
The main reason for the worker crisis is that the number of restaurants is growing, but the present generation is also not interested in working in the restaurants. They want to work in good sectors, with good prospects. The restaurant sector does not have good prospects, so the problem will remain… The younger generation have done mainstream education and now they want to get jobs as doctors, engineers… The children have seen their fathers working in the restaurants. It is very busy, their fathers don't get rest. When the children are on holiday, their fathers can't spend time with them. They are busy, even during the holidays. So the children are reluctant to go into the restaurants.
Ashim Sen, a restaurant owner in Bradford also spoke of the crisis in staffing and believed this as also because of changing marriage patterns:
The number of restaurants and takeaways is increasing day by day. 10 or 12 people are needed for a restaurant, 5 or 7 for a takeaway. Where will the staff come from? There are two reasons for the staff crisis: people born and brought up here are not interested in the restaurant sector. Many of them go to factories or other jobs. Another reason is that people are not coming to this country in big numbers. Before, many people would be coming here. Say, 20 years ago, there was no marriage here; everybody would go to Bangladesh. Nowadays marriages take place here. Not a week passes without a marriage. So people are not coming over from Bangladesh. 99% of the boys who used to come from Bangladesh would join a restaurant. They had no experience in this country and it was easy to get work in a restaurant. They could earn a good wage without experience. They could send money to Bangladesh too. They could also study while working in the restaurant. That's why people preferred restaurants. And a good number of people were coming over, too. There was no restriction. People could easily get jobs on a visit visa. So there was no staff crisis.
Rahela Chowdhury (Newham): successful Bengali women
Rahela Chowdhury arrived in East London in 1989, to join her father. Rahela has been actively involved in Bengali culture and politics and now works as a councillor in East London. A property developer and landlord, she spoke of the increased opportunities for Bengali women in Britain and their growing successes:
Nowadays many Bengali women are doing business. Earlier, women were rare, particularly in the important positions, but now they are everywhere. One of my friends is a barrister, teaching is a profession considered suitable for women. Bengali women are nurses, doctors, some are politicians too, like Pola apa [Baroness Pola Uddin]. Maybe they are few in number, but they are working. We must encourage women to come into all the professions; women are needed in all sectors.
Mostaq Ahmed and Amjad Ali (Tower Hamlets): setting up businesses in Bangladesh
Mostaq Ahmed came to Britain in 1982. He had been educated in Bangladesh and was active in politics there. In Britain, he worked for 10 years and then started a small business in Dhaka - a printing and packaging firm. He told us:
We haven't done badly. We have factories in Postagola, with many workers there. The first two or three years were not good, but the last three or four years we've been doing better. We have good worker-management relations… That was my contribution.
Although his family are settled in Britain, Mostaq Ahmed usually travels to Bangladesh once or twice a year – an interesting shift from the early days of migration when people came to work in Britain and left their families in Bangladesh! Mostaq Ahmed also owns property in Dhaka and Sylhet, and sees this investment as a way of contributing to the development of Bangladesh:
Recently some of my friends – eight or ten of us, all professionals - have been trying to set up a school. There will be two branches – one in Dhaka and one in Sylhet… We have already bought some land. We will fund the school ourselves. This will be our contribution to our country.
Amjad Ali also has business interests in Bangladesh. He once owned a restaurant in Brick Lane, but now owns a fast food restaurant in Bashundara City, a shopping mall in Dhaka, and lives part-time in Bangladesh where he is also involved in human rights organisations. He told us:
I did not intend to do business in Bangladesh. And when I went there, I realised that I had to meet some expenses over there. I also needed space to sit to do some work. So, when I got the opportunity, I bought this fast food shop and cyber café.
His main interest, though, is in helping to develop human rights in Bangladesh:
Here in Britain I have always been involved with community work and development issues. I'm also involved with similar issues in Bangladesh. So I thought it was better to go to Bangladesh. If I live in Bangladesh I can deal with the situation directly, I can get field level information, faster information, so that things can be done easily. I have some experience and Bangladesh can benefit from this experience.
His family still live in Britain and he divides his time between the two countries:
I come and go regularly… I try to limit my stay in the UK. As my work is mainly in Dhaka, I try to stay there as long as possible. At present, I come to the UK every three or four months and stay for two or three weeks.