Somewhere to work

What Britain Wants

I owe my existence, not just to the coming together of my parents, but also to an act of parliament.

The 1948 British Nationality Act made millions of people around the world members of an empire where the sun never set - citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies.

This piece of legislation allowed my parents to come to the UK, where I was born.

It was the least the Empire could do. During World War Two, in her time of need, millions of Indians, West Indians and Africans fought for the British and the Allies.

And the colonies wanted to fight. Not to preserve the Empire, as the post-war years showed, but to prevent it being ruled by the Nazis.

You might think the invasion of Poland, events at Tobruk, and the fall of Paris, Stalingrad and so on, were a world away from the sun-kissed shores of Jamaica and Barbados.

Actually, the West Indies were under direct threat from German submarines looking to sink oil tankers and ships carrying bauxite aluminium ore from the Caribbean to America and Britain.

Young West Indian men, hungry for something to do - there had been riots in the Jamaican capital Kingston over unemployment before the war - wanted in.

They wanted to play their part in the global conflagration, were anxious to help the Mother Country, and were looking for excitement.

Eventually they were called up,with many heading to the Royal Air Force for ground duties and ending up in the North West of England.

Others followed after the war, including my uncles Rennie and Cecil in the late 1950s, who joined the air force.

They were the ones who extolled the benefits of life in the UK to my dad.

They encouraged him to make the long journey from the parish of Westmoreland on the south-west tip of Jamaica, across the Atlantic, to Bolton in Lancashire. My mum followed a year or so later.

It wasn't a difficult decision for my dad to make. Long gone was Jamaican prosperity. The sugar industry based on slavery had made the country one of the jewels of the Empire. But free trade in the 19th Century meant competition from the likes of Cuba and Brazil.

And because sugar production is highly labour intensive, Jamaica had a large population that was now struggling to find work.

But Jamaicans are resourceful people, and the island has a tradition of emigration.

Many went to Panama to help build the railways in the 1850s, and in the early 20th Century a very large contingent found work on the construction of the Panama Canal, including my great-grandfather.

I only found this out a few years ago, when visiting my very elderly grandmother in Kingston. With the onset of senility, she was suddenly able to speak Spanish, which she'd learnt as a little girl in Panama when her father was working there.

Jamaicans were knocking on an open door in their desire to come to the Mother Country.

The end of the war saw the expansion of the British economy, and through the 1950s and 60s there were substantial labour shortages.

Industries like textiles and transport - where low pay, long hours and shiftwork made the jobs unattractive to British workers - were open to the new migrants.

My mum was a qualified teacher in Jamaica. Highly intelligent, her experience of trying to get a job in the UK mirrored the character of Hortense in Andrea Levi's novel Small Island.

Just like Hortense, my mum's Jamaican teaching qualification wasn't accepted in Britain. She'd have to go back to training college to get a UK certificate, and by the time she'd resolved to do this, I came along in 1964.

She had to work wherever she could. Money was tight and there was a another mouth to feed.

So my mum began dressmaking, and was brilliant. She was a fast learner and earned good money.

It's only in the making of my Panorama programme that I found out she'd made dresses for Mary Quant, clothes for Marks and Spencer, and worked for the same company that made Harold Wilson's signature macs.

She graduated quickly from making particular parts of a garment, like the pockets or collar, to making the whole dress on her own from pattern to catwalk.

I remember her making all our school uniforms, and even the jeans I wore on my first day at university.

Well into her 60s, she made my younger sister's wedding dress in 1998.

My dad was a factory worker and labourer.

At the beginning, when he arrived from Jamaica, it was difficult getting a job that lasted longer than a few weeks, but he was never short of work.

He might be made redundant on the Friday, but by Monday he'd be back at work somewhere new.

In the end he worked for a plastics company for more than a decade before retiring.

I asked him recently if he regretted coming to the UK, because I never got the impression he was ever that happy here.

He hated the cold weather and his diligence at work was often resented by white colleagues (who didn't like the colour of his skin), and black colleagues (who saw him as someone who dealt too easily with the bosses).

I think he had a hard time in the workplace. It's something he doesn't talk about. But it was the lure of work that brought my family to the UK, and the other Jamaicans before them.

Though at times it was hard, jobs were plentiful and the rewards were good.

It's a far cry from the world of work many young people are entering today.

My mum, unlike my dad, did seem to thrive here - and it was in a happy and contented environment that I grew up.

We were pretty well off in our street. I remember when we got a colour TV for the first time - not the exact year but that it was a big deal.

We bought a house and then a few years later bought the one next door too. And it was around this time I noticed a chap on the telly who was to be a huge influence on my life.

Trevor McDonald was from Trinidad, which Jamaicans disparagingly refer to as a “small island”, and he was the same colour as me, but wasn't a black and white minstrel.

(The Black and White Minstrel show was a light entertainment/variety programme with white people daubed in black make-up, singing songs. It ran on the BBC until 1978, and I think the less said about it the better.)

Anyway this bloke called Trevor McDonald just seemed to spend his whole time travelling from one country to another, and that looked like so much fun to me.

I was obsessed with Alan Whicker at the time too, who also seemed to be running around the world. And I thought... that's what I want to do.

The fact that Trevor was black showed it was possible for me to achieve my goal. He did it, so I could do it too.

I've met him quite a few times and I always tell him if it wasn't for him I might not be a journalist, although I think he's fed up of hearing it by now.

As a youngster I had a paper round, and by the age of 13 or 14, I got the newsagent to give me a subscription to the Times.

I knew what I wanted from the world of work. I wanted to tell stories and travel - to be able to go to interesting places and meet interesting people.

Journalism would give me that. I soaked up the news on the telly (the News at Ten was something my dad watched religiously) and I absorbed all the names of the people I admired. Gerald Seymour, Michael Brunson, Sandy Gall, Michael Nicholson.

There were no undergraduate courses in journalism in those days, and joining the BBC or ITN was what many young people wanted to do. I knew it would be competitive, and if I was to avoid disappointing my mum and dad, I had to have something to fall back on.

So when I went to university I studied law. After graduating I took a year off, then applied to the BBC, as well as the Middle Temple to become a barrister.

I was hedging my bets. The pressure was on. I'd already loafed around for a year after university, and the long journey my parents made on a ship from the Caribbean to the UK in the 1960s wasn't so that I could become a beach bum.

They gave me that year off, but then I had to get my act together.

Despite being accepted by the Middle Temple, I knew I wanted journalism, not the law.

More than 3,000 bright sparks applied for just 12 places on the BBC's reporters' training scheme.

I got one of them.

Generation Zero Hours

I suppose it's never really occurred to me just how lucky I am to be doing a job I love - to be getting decent pay for it, to have a pension and be happy about my world of work.

Confucius said if you can find a job you love, then you'll never go to work again. I suppose I feel a bit like that.

Was it fun seeing piles of headless bodies in Borneo, with their hearts ripped out, after a battle between the Madurese and Dayaks, who decapitate as a matter of course?


Was it fun having a Taliban fighter in Kabul threaten to shoot up the cafe we were in because he was tetchy after fasting for Ramadan and then finding the eggs had run out?


Has it been fun watching a beautiful country like Sierra Leone almost crumble under the weight of the Ebola crisis?


But I will take with me to my grave the feeling of elation I had when Barack Obama won the White House in 2008.

I was reporting live from Moorhouse College in Atlanta, America's elite university for African Americans. Martin Luther King, Spike Lee, and Samuel L Jackson all went there.

When it was announced Obama was victorious there wasn't a dry eye in the hall. It was on the shoulders of Dr King that Obama was standing.

It didn't matter what his politics were - Republican or Democrat - the journey from the plantation to the presidency began in that hall with the civil rights movement led by King.

And I was there. Wow.

What are the chances of most young people entering the world of work today, ending up in a job they love, that pays well, and will provide for their old age?

It's become tougher and tougher over the years.

Globalisation and the march of technology are squeezing people out.

In real terms today, incomes remain 2% below what they were in 2009-10. The average British family therefore is worse off today than it was five years ago.

The issue of zero-hours contracts - where regular work is not guaranteed - looms large for many. There were 1.8 million such contracts in the UK, as of last summer, covering well over 600,000 people.

Sports Direct has been one of the companies most criticised for the way it uses the contracts, with Labour leader Ed Miliband branding it a “terrible place to work”. The retailer has rejected the criticism and said it is reviewing “core” employment procedures.

People on zero-hours contracts may not know it, but they're likely to be entitled to similar benefits to someone working part-time,which includes sick pay and holiday pay.

A legal challenge may soon decide if they're entitled to bonuses too.

Besides zero-hours contracts, there are other issues for young workers.

Encouraged to go to university, many believed a degree would be the golden key to a brighter future.

But one feature of our economy in recent years is the stubbornly high level of youth unemployment. It's currently 740,000.

Sarah Riley, who recently left school, was scathing in describing the job opportunities around her home in Shirebrook in Derbyshire.

She tells me about the shop jobs in Aldi and Co-op, and the work on offer in Sports Direct, which is the big local employer.

They are not the sort of places where she'd want to build a career, she says. What she wanted was money to buy a home, a car and raise a family.

Pretty standard stuff really - just what my parents wanted, but now seemingly out of reach for many.

Getting work that's well paid is obviously what everyone wants, and having a skill will help achieve that.

As Sarah Riley points out, the jobs in her home town are low paid and in retail. In the wider Midlands area it's the same story.

Thousands of young people end up taking a shop job, or working in a logistics warehouse to tide them over. Pretty soon a year, then two, then three have passed.

At the Midlands Studio School, they're taking a different approach to education. giving pupils the skills to avoid low-paying employment.

It's one of more than 30 schools across the country where pupils are groomed for the world of work.

They do a 9-5 day, and their dress code is a business suit, not school uniform.

But most importantly, the students go out to industry and get their hands dirty one or two days a week.

The headteacher Dan Rosser says that what the school is offering is an opportunity to try career paths over a sustained period of time, to help develop relationships, to learn how to become a good employee.

What he is doing is encouraging his pupils to rise above the everyday, to move beyond a life of low pay.

He's dreaming their dreams.

The Precariat?

Some are pointing to an increased casualisation of work in recent years - with the rise of part-time and zero-hours contracts - as well as a growth in those who are self-employed.

There's no doubt Britain is creating plenty of jobs - the UK's employment rate is at its joint highest level since records began.

But according to the TUC, since the financial crash of 2008, just one in every 40 jobs added to the economy has been full time.

Prof Guy Standing, an expert on labour economics, says these on/off workers are part of a new social class called “the precariat”.

He says it consists of millions of people who live “bits and pieces lives”.

They're habituated to accept unstable living, and one of the defining features of their existence is that they have no narrative they can give to their life, “that they are something or becoming something, and in retirement were something”.

Mark Harper, at the Department for Work and Pensions, disputes this, not accepting the argument that there is a growing section of society that's employed in a world of work that's precarious.

He says the evidence is that the growth in employment is in largely full-time jobs, and that there are nearly 750,000 vacancies out there - so there's no need for anyone to stay with an employer who isn't good, because there are plenty of other opportunities.

But critics say that argument puts the onus firmly on the worker to move, not the boss to change, and that highlights another fundamental shift in the world of work from when my parents, and eventually I, entered the jobs market.

The risks of work have moved from employers to employees.
It used to be that, if an office or a shop was busy at some times and quiet at others, the employer managed the peaks and troughs. Now in a world where part-time and zero-hours contracts abound, individuals carry the financial risk of only working when they're needed.

These are things the individual must now think about, not the boss. It's an unwelcome and unfair extra burden, critics say. It also raises an interesting philosophical question.

Should the government, any government, be concerned how happy we are with work, or is its job simply to make sure work exists?

Of course, we must be safe at work, and not be bullied or abused by employers who must act within the framework of the law. But do we have a right to be happy at work, with governments defending that right?

The immediate answer is, for some, no.

Ed Miliband is on record as saying the epidemic of zero-hours contracts has no place in the 21st Century.

Why not? If everything is done above board and entitlements are paid? Michael Heseltine, former trade minister in John Major's government, says they are a convenient way for companies to keep staff when they most need them, and reduce staff when demand is low.

But it seems to be the uncertainty of the contract and the uncertainty of work that critics object to.

They believe that a precarious work life is not conducive to a happy life. How can it be, if you've got a mortgage or bills to pay, or a family to feed?

No more 9 to 5

When I was growing up in the 1970s our places of work far more closely resembled the Victorian era, than anything we know today.

The typing pool and clerical work - the mine and the factory - all drove our economy. This was the Britain my mum and dad came to in the early 1960s.

Since then the working world has changed almost beyond recognition, buffeted by the twin forces of globalisation and technology.

How should we adapt to this “second industrial revolution”?

What do we do about a world where, 20 years from now, many of the jobs we do today might disappear? What will happen to those engaged in repetitive clerical or manual jobs? Librarians, counter clerks and supermarket workers seem especially vulnerable to computers and machines taking over.

The old certainties have gone - so do we need to re-engineer society to cope with mass unemployment? Or is the way forward a trade-off - jobs but with less security?

That's what we seem to have settled for.

But I wonder if this is the kind of environment my parents, and those Jamaicans who came before, would have been willing to up sticks for in the 1960s?

My mum says no. They wouldn't have wanted to take out a mortgage on a house for instance - let alone two - if the prospect of work was “precarious”.

The fancy new colour telly? Maybe we'd have made do with the black and white one for a lot longer.

And as for my dad's pride and joy, his 1970s Morris Oxford car? Not a chance. It would perhaps never have been parked in our garage.

That vehicle was a symbol for my dad that he'd arrived. That the journey from Westmoreland to Bolton had been worth making.

Many are still making the journey, mainly from the European Union, to our shores because opportunities are better here.

But if work is supposed to give meaning to our days, and support the ones we love, those goals for more and more people are proving elusive.

Most of us want to work, and that desire is being satisfied, but how satisfied are we?