Blog post

Black Women's Employment and the British Economy

Gail Lewis's classic essay on the position of black women in the British economy, from Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain

Gail Lewis14 July 2017

Jobcentre women's section, 1971. via Mute Magazine.

Edited by Clive Harris and Winston James and published by Verso in 1993, Inside Babylon: The Caribbean Diaspora in Britain collects essays on the experience of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain during the post-war period. "What makes this collection distinctive," the editors write, "is its attempt to give voice to the fractured narratives of this diaspora from within. It attempts to speak the real histories in which diasporic groups become inscribed and position themselves despite displacement and ruptures. In standard texts, these histories have often been subverted by those who have perceived them through ideological prisms, most commonly that of the 'politics of race'...

What has been central to the experience of black people in Britain has been neither the “idea” nor the “politics” of “race” as the “idea” or the politics of “racial difference.” Rather, it has been racism and other forms of oppression. It is racism that has determined the manner in which their labour-power has been utilized; it is racism that has determined the manner in which their “communities” have been policed; it is racism which assaults their humanity in psychiatric hospitals; and it is the effects of racism, too, that have been internalized. In short, it is racism against which the struggle has to be fought. Not difference

Gail Lewis's essay below, included in the collect, examines the position of black women in the British economy. As Harris and James describe, "the key aim is to show how black women's employment experiences have been shaped not only by economic factors and racism but by sexism and the sexual division of labour. It is the intersection between these elements that defines the distinct position of black women in the labour market as akin neither to that of white women nor to that of black men."


In recent years it has become a commonplace (at least among black activists) to accept that it is black people in general, and black women in particular, who have borne the brunt of the effects of the economic crisis.1 More particularly, the factors which give rise to this condition are said to be the interlocking of massive unemployment, government legislation, and growing racialism in local areas. For black women the added burden of domestic work combined with long hours of paid employment is also alluded to as is the fact that racist government legislation is often predicated on, and reinforces sexist divisions and stereotypes. A strong case in point is the Nationality Act of 1981. In this Act not only is the citizenship status of much of the population redefined, but the ability of black female citizens to confer entry and residency rights on their husbands is denied.2

Certainly these are important observations and they point to some of the processes which need to be analysed if we are to move towards a deeper understanding not only of the determinants of black women's employment patterns to date, but also of our future prospects and the political opportunities which these determinants may give rise to in a time of massive restructuring of production and the black population.

In my view the context in which to view black women's employment patterns and prospects is the sexual division of labour (in relation to both the private market economy and domestic production), the long-term relative decline of the British economy: the present recession and government policy as it relates to: first monetarism and public sector cuts; and secondly, control of the black communities at central and local government level.

A third mediating category is "racism," which we can define as the organization of society on the basis of an ideology of inferiority grounded in "race" or colour (i.e. biological differences) and/or ethnic (i.e. cultural) differences, which then gives rise to a distribution of the labour force in certain ways. However we cannot analyse the role and experiences of black women in the British economy in ideological terms alone and it becomes necessary to examine the ways in which these factors, including the practice of racialism, connect with underlying economic factors. In other words we begin from an analysis of the workings of the British capitalist economy in general and move, more specifically, to the ways in which the sexual division of labour, racialism, and government policy intersect with the economic factors against a background of relative decline and cyclical crisis. However, before we go on to look at these features let us outline the broad contours of black women's employment patterns.

Patterns of Black Women's Employment

One of the characteristics of the British economy in the immediate post-war period was the mobilization of two sources of relative surplus-population: the mass of workers in the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent, and indigenous women workers.3 By drawing on these pools of labour British capital was in fact attempting to overcome the effects of its long-term comparative decline by intensifying the rate of exploitation.Therefore cheap labour was substituted for capital investment in Britain. This approach was to have the effect of determining the sectors into which the two pools of workers were to be concentrated. For women workers (undifferentiated in terms of "race") there was the added dimension of the sexual division of labour whose operation was to determine the occupations into which they were absorbed. For black women the ideology of racism and the practice of racialism were to intertwine with the ideology and practice of sexism, both of which were to impact on the structural characteristics of the British economy to determine the industrial and occupational location of black women workers.

As one would expect from the foregoing, the geographical distribution of Britain's black population mirrors that of the traditional industries into which they were recruited. Thus 40 per cent of black people live in the Greater London area, though for Afro-Caribbeans this is 59 per cent, and a substantial number of the remainder live in the major conurbations of the Midlands and North East. Tables 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3 show the industrial distribution of black and women workers nationally and in the Greater London area at the end of the 1970s. Tables 3.1 and 3.2 are not directly comparable because the one for women amalgamates some of the Standard Industrial Classification groupings. However since we also know that black women display a similar concentration into what is considered "women's work," these tables do reflect the general shape of the industrial location of black women workers.

Within these industries black women tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paid, least skilled jobs with bad conditions of work. Furthermore, as Tables 3.4 and 3.5 indicate, they have very high economic activity rates and a large majority work full-time as will be discussed below. It is however important to note that the contrast between black and white women workers in terms of type and conditions of work is less than that which exists between black and white men. In part this is due to the low employment status of women generally and because of the high incidence of white women who are in unskilled jobs because they work part-time.

More generally this less wide discrepancy is due to the fact that women as a category were themselves brought into the labour market on conditions similar to those of black people, i.e. as cheap labour. Having said this Brown (1984) shows that when we compare Afro-Caribbean women with white women the former are still concentrated in the lowest status positions in both manual and non-manual occupations. This is so despite a slight increase in the numbers of black women in non-manual occupations between 1974 and 1982. Figure 3.2 shows this.

The sexual division of labour was also to determine the ways in which women in general were to match their domestic responsibilities with their participation in paid employment. However the ways in which women combined these dual responsibilities were subject to "racial" differentiation. For many white women the way to do this was to do part-time work. For example, 36 per cent of white women in the London area were engaged in part-time work in the late 1970s (NDHS 1977-78). This compares to a national average of 43 per cent for all women. By contrast the same NDHS survey showed that only 19 per cent of West Indian women worked part-time, and only 12 per cent of Asian women. (In 1988, when the national average was 40 per cent, the figure for West Indian women was 25 and 23 for Indian women.) This means that for black women the worrying task of combining domestic responsibilities with paid employment had to be done within the constraints imposed by full-time paid employment. One way out has been to do full-time hours on a regular shift basis. Brown (1984) shows that 18 per cent of West Indian women work shifts regularly, compared to 11 per cent for white women.



As a result of these differences wage levels are different, although once again the discrepancy between black and white men is much greater than that between black and white women. In the PSI study the average for Caribbean women was slightly higher than that for white women, though that of Asian women was slightly lower, albeit only slightly. This is in part caused by the age composition of the workforce: 47 per cent of white women workers are in the under twenty-five and over fifty-four age groups compared to 28 per cent of black women workers. This difference has the effect of deflating average earnings of white women workers because it is these age groups which have the worst pay rates. Thus if these two age groups are excluded from the calculations we get a reversal of the differential "from £1.50 in favour of black women to £10.40 in favour of white women" (Brown 1984: 168). However even with this adjustment white women do not tend to have higher wages within employment categories.


Overall therefore white women have better wages because there are more of them in better-paid jobs. Thus black women's earnings are the result partly of their concentration in particular occupations and partly because their concentration in large, better-unionized work-places and the public sector cushions them from the worst levels of pay.

Having outlined the broad characteristics of black women's employment patterns let us now turn to the context in which to consider them.

The Sexual Division of Labour

The concentration of women workers in particular occupations and sectors of the economy is one manifestation of the sexual division of labour which pervades all aspects of society. Primarily the sexual division of labour in British society is based on the ideological separation of the spheres of production and reproduction into "work" and "home/family." The former is considered the sphere of men and the latter that of women, with the wage acting as the mediating factor between the two spheres. Moreover the assumed "naturalness" and desirability of this ideological division is presented as though it were a historical constant which matched contemporary social reality.

In fact the development of the concept of the ideal family type, desirable and attainable for people of all classes in Britain, itself grew out of the changes which accompanied the development of capitalism (MacKenzie and Rose 1983: 155-200; Wilson 1977; Barrett 1981). A full discussion of the processes which gave rise to the articulation between the extension of capitalist social relations and the ideology of "separate spheres" is beyond the scope of this chapter. However for our purposes it is important to note two points. The first is that the idea of separate spheres accompanied that of the single family wage which was earned by the "male breadwinner." This means that while the preservation and reproduction of the household was more firmly wedded to market relations as articulated by the wage, women were less able to directly influence developments in the wage labour or production sphere (MacKenzie and Rose 1983: 172). Meanwhile men were tied more deeply to the necessity to earn a wage and an ideology of masculinity, and as a result they were expected to be able to provide singlehandedly the ever-expanding supply of household commodities which the expansion of productive capacity and the changing domestic economy gave rise to.

The inadequacy of many individual "family" wage rates for these purposes was to act as a contributory factor in the demand for state-provided welfare services, since these were essential if women were to be freed for the labour market and new standards for the reproduction of labour were to be met. The possibility of the state providing some level of welfare services was increased by the expansion of the domestic productive base from which some surplus could be redirected for these purposes, together with that portion of surplus which came from the extraction of super-profits in the colonial world.

However a second consequence of the increase in the production of consumer goods and the provision of welfare services was an increase in the demand for labour in the immediate post-Second World War period. This increase was partly the result of the tensions between production and reproduction which were generated by the ideology of separate spheres for men and women. Importantly this was one contributory factor in the expansion of the demand for labour in those manufacturing and service sectors into which black workers were recruited in the 1950s and early 1960s. Examples are the transport, construction, food and drink manufacture (particularly of convenience and snack foods) and the NHS.

For women as a whole however this tension led to a redefinition of their role as wives and mothers so that it could now include the possibility of their participation in the world of "work." Thus the second point to note is that by the 1950s the ideology of separate spheres included the notion and fact of "dual roles" for women. At one level this was a representational shift based on the need to incorporate women into the labour force which the expansion of productive capacity and the requirement of an increased number of commodities for the domestic economy gave rise to. Women became wage workers in both intensive production processes and the expansion of office work. At another level however the concept of the dual role was itself related to the continuation of the idea that women's primary responsibility was that of the home and the family. This was itself to give rise to another contradiction.

On the one hand women who were engaged in paid labour were regarded as acting responsibly in that this second wage enabled the provision of consumer durables for the household, and even the house itself, which had escalated in cost yet were increasingly becoming essential requirements for the "efficient" running of the modern household.5 Despite this however women were still regarded as working for "pin money." The notion that the wage earned by married women is secondary to that of husbands is one factor in determining that all women's pay (married or not) is lower than men's. For example, the Employment Gazette (November 1989) showed that in 1989 the earnings (excluding overtime) of women in full-time paid employment averaged 76.4 per cent of men's. Taken as a total ideological construct then the notion of "separate spheres" serves to reinforce a sexual division of labour both within and outside the household and acts to determine which occupations women are most commonly found in as well as preserving their position within the industrial reserve army of labour. Moreover changes within the ideology of the sexual division of labour not only mirrored developments within the accumulation of capital but also had material repercussions which were to partially determine the industrial location of black workers in the British economy. This is an important point which is more often than not overlooked by writers concerned with the position of black people in Britain because they fail to see the relevance of gender divisions within society as a whole and between men and women.

From the foregoing it is clear that an analysis of the role of black women workers in the British economy must be contextualized within an understanding of the dynamic and impact of the sexual division of labour. This is so not just because such an understanding helps to explain the occupational and sectoral concentration of all women workers but also because it helps us to understand the forces which give rise to the expansion of these occupations and sectors themselves.

This is not to presume that the effects of the sexual division of labour on women's employment experience is uniform. Gender categories need to be disaggregated by "race"; and when this is done disparities emerge.

Two further points need to be mentioned. On the one hand whatever the wider "economic" effects of the ideology of separate spheres, this notion gave rise to an additional assumption that all migrants who came to Britain with the primary purpose of finding paid work were men, since it is men who are universally deemed to be the main breadwinners. On the other hand to the extent that it was recognized that black women came seeking work in their own right, it was assumed that these women had no family/domestic responsibilities whose fulfilment required an "adequate" wage. Their very migrant status was assumed to mean that the problems associated with the "dual role" were absent as far as these women were concerned. Of course in the 1950s and early 1960s this was to some extent partly true and was reflected in the overconcentration of black women workers in occupations where part-time work is less common, for example in manufacturing as opposed to office work. Moreover, whether or not the assumption about the lack of domestic responsibilities within Britain was true at that time, it was more often than not the case that early black women migrants had financial responsibilities for dependants in the Caribbean or elsewhere. The number of Caribbean-born young women and men who remember the departure of their mothers for England while they were left with a grandmother or aunt, is eloquent testimony to this. Consequently the low wage rates paid here often acted as a fetter on her ability to fulfil these commitments, particularly given the relatively high cost of living in Britain. It is not therefore surprising that the burden of dual responsibilities together with low wages acted as a compulsion to work overtime and shifts to maximize the weekly pay packet. Indeed such is often the case in the 1980s. Black women workers are thus caught by the low wages associated with the assumption that women work for "pin money," the effects of racialism as practised by employers (and in some cases unions), and the downward pressure on wages that the physical separation of black workers' productive capacity from the previous site of their reproduction (i.e. home) gave rise to.

By the mid-1960s the situation was changing as it became clear that black people were here as settlers and it was increasingly impossible to assume that black women workers did not have "dual role" functions to perform at home and "work." Indeed in some measure this fact was itself the outcome of government attempts to restrict the size of the black population by the introduction of immigrant controls. The change in the status of black workers was itself accompanied by the development of a different kind of racism which was directed at the level of reproduction (e.g. concerns over housing, community facilities, education etc.) and the so-called "problems" which it was anticipated would arise within this sphere because of the presence of black families in Britain. This new racism covered all aspects of social life and included hysterical "rivers of blood" type speeches by leading politicians and alarming developments in the policing of inner city areas where the majority of the black population lives. An important additional element from the point of view of black women was the rise of the notion of the pathological black family, a notion which is nothing other than a racially specific ideological assault on the black population in general and black women in particular. Its roots lay, at least in part, in the tensions associated with the particular way in which black women are forced to bridge the "separate spheres" (e.g. full-time hours in shifts) and, importantly, the community-based struggles in which these women are engaged in the attempt to alter the terms on which they performed their dual roles. Consequently the ideological assault has been accompanied by a host of institutional practices by "welfare" agencies. Indeed it is the struggle within this arena which has been the sharp edge of black people's political action for some time and it is often even at the core of many of the industrial struggles that black women have engaged in over the years. Hence the common scenario of a mobilization of the community behind strikes, Grunwick being a classic example.

Taken as a whole then, developments within the sexual division of labour have acted in concert with developments within the wider economy, which together with the ideology of racism and the practice of racialism have determined the place of black women workers in the British economy. Moreover the effects of the cyclical crisis have led to a period of major restructuring in all spheres of social life which will have material affects on black women's employment prospects.

The Crisis in the British Economy

The continuation of the capitalist mode of production depends on the constant accumulation of capital and on the reproduction of the conditions, within and outside of production, which facilitate that accumulation. This includes the continual accumulation of labour itself, employed or unemployed and categorized according to different skill levels. It has meant that periodically the spheres of production and reproduction have had to be restructured, as has the relationship between these two spheres. It goes without saying that this restructuring is itself the subject of struggle in which the working class, defined in its different categories, i.e. as women, black, youth etc., attempts to ensure that the process occurs in their interests and not those of capital. This in part is what "community" struggles are about.6 Indeed such a process of restructuring is occurring during the present crisis. However within this general picture of periodic crisis it is arguable that in terms of international comparison the British economy has been in one form of crisis since the end of the last century (Gutzmore 1975-76). For example Britain remained the world's leading country in terms of international trade until well into this century (not least because of the "captive" markets which the colonies represented), accounting for 25 per cent of the world manufactured exports in 1950. However, in production terms Britain was overtaken as early as the 1880s by the USA and the 1890s by Germany. As one would expect this situation has continued into the present so that by 1978 Britain's Gross Domestic Product was less than half that of Germany's while in terms of output per person of goods and services, only Italy, Greece, and Ireland were lower. This is a function of low investment levels: a 93 per cent fall (in constant 1975 prices) in net investment in Britain between 1970 and 1981 illustrates the point.

Within this more long-term relative decline however the British economy (like all capitalist economies) has been subject to long cycles of boom and slump in tandem with, but more pronounced than, the international economy as a whole. More particularly for our purposes we need to note that these distinct but inter-related forms of crisis have given rise to two factors. Firstly Britain's long-term relative decline has led to structural features which have determined the conditions under which black workers in general, and black women workers in particular, were brought into the labour force. Since these conditions were also to affect the relationship between production and reproduction they were to give rise to additional tensions which were gender-specific. I will return to this point below. Secondly the more medium-term, but nevertheless endemic, structural crises such as those of 1974 and 1978-79 onwards, have meant a more pronounced period of restructuring which has heavily impinged on the pattern and prospects of black women's employment.

This restructuring, itself a response to a crisis of profitability (for example as a percentage of income gross profit rates fell from 20 per cent in 1966 to below 4 per cent in 1974 — Anderson et al. 1983: 5), has involved widespread bankruptcies and voluntary closure of plants, massive unemployment and a switch to new branches of production. The figure of 5,500 bankruptcies in the first half of 1982, a 75 per cent increase on 1981, is illustrative of the extent of the problem. Moreover Table 3.6 for Greater London shows the extent to which employment loss is particularly severe in those sectors of the economy in which black women are concentrated. It has also meant a cut in wage levels and a reduction in the social wage. A few simple facts illustrate these trends.

Britain's long-term decline as a producer of manufactured goods has continued so that by the end of the 1970s Britain's share of world manufactured exports was below 10 percent and by 1982 Britain was a net importer of manufactures. Moreover manufactured output had declined even in absolute terms so that by 1981 it was below its 1967 level. As one would expect this has been matched by a decline in the numbers employed in manufacturing in both absolute and proportionate terms. Thus while 8.8 million people were employed in manufacturing in 1951 this figure had dropped to 5.8 million by 1981. In percentage terms this represented 45 per cent and 27.5 per cent respectively (Anderson et al. 1983).

While this decline in manufacturing has been accompanied by an expansion in the service sector of the economy — especially during the 1960s — it was not enough to compensate for the loss of employment in the manufacturing sector. Notwithstanding this there is some evidence to suggest that until recently the growth in certain parts of the service sector has helped to cushion women as a whole from the worst effects of employment loss (Breugal 1979). Thus for example growth in the professional and scientific, and miscellaneous services categories has helped to offset the loss of women's jobs in manufacturing, which, between 1974 and 1977, fell by 9 per cent. Factors such as these are attributable to the sexual division of labour in employment whereby certain sectors and occupations are almost exclusively defined as "women's jobs" (e.g. 70 per cent of all women wage workers are employed in service industries, while in manufacturing they account for 76 per cent, 46 per cent and 40 per cent of the work force in clothing and footwear, textiles and food and drink).

However there is also some evidence to suggest that this cushioning effect was not proportionately shared by black women workers. This is because of the higher concentration of black women in semi- and unskilled manual work, together with their under-representation in routine white-collar work such as clerical work. Annie Phizacklea (1982: 104) for example has concluded that the comparative figures for "all women" (including all migrant women workers) and "Caribbean women" in four occupational categories are as shown in Table 3.7. Such discrepancies might be analysed within a "racialized" sexual division of labour, the effects of which are more fundamental than is conveyed by a simple notion of discrimination, as I have attempted to show.

More recently the service sector as a whole has also begun to decline. Between 1979 and 1982 well over half a million jobs were lost in the service sector. In addition during the last decade the main inner city areas where black people are concentrated have experienced an increase in the rate of loss of service sector jobs (Cambridge Economic Policy Review 1982).

Added to this the loss in total employment has declined faster than registered unemployment has increased. Nearly 2.5 million jobs have been lost between mid 1979 and mid 1982, compared to a 1.9 million increase in the numbers of people registered as unemployed during the same period.This is in part due to the fact that even in those industries where there has been increased investment in plant during the recession, employment levels have often declined. For example in the chemical industry investment increased by 70 percent between 1964 and 1973 yet employment declined by 8 per cent. Overall then the restructuring associated with the recession has meant "changes in where people work, how they work and if they work" (Byrne and Parson 1983: 128) and the process of shedding the number of workers it requires to produce an expanded amount of goods will only increase unless action by workers stops it.

To approach the question of employment in this way suggests that the concept of "crisis" implies more than a restructuring of relations at the workplace and of how things are produced. It also suggests that "crisis" implies a necessity to try and restructure relations within production as well, as was suggested in the section dealing with the sexual division of labour. In other words the struggles of working-class people in general and black workers in particular that take place in the community (over home, policing, education, immigration, health, social security benefit) are as much a problem for capital as it tries to overcome the crisis in its own favour, as are strikes over pay or the length of the working day. Indeed it is only by adopting an integrated approach such as this that we will be able to understand the impact on black women's employment of the recession and the interventionist strategies of the state on behalf of capital. Similarly and more importantly only by adopting this approach will we be able to develop the appropriate strategies by which to defeat the attacks being made on us as black people.

Let us now look at government policy.


Against the picture of the crisis painted above it becomes clear that the Thatcher government's economic strategy has been a radical intervention aimed at hastening the process of restructuring which is required if profitability is to be restored to acceptable levels for British capital as a whole.

At one level crises within capitalism are an inevitable consequence of the pursuit for continued and expanded accumulation on the one hand, and the attempt by workers to subvert this process in their own interests on the other. Thus while investment in more plant as against labour may improve productivity and profit levels for individual capitals by increasing the extraction of relative surplus-value, at the level of collective capital it only serves to eliminate the source of profit, i.e. the workers themselves.8 Therefore for capital as a whole the effect of an increase in the proportion of machines to workers is that too many firms chase too little profit.9 Moreover with a strong, well-organized labour force, itself partly the result of full employment during the boom period, the easy reorganization of production by the introduction of new technology or different working hours etc. is prohibitive as is a decline in real wage rates. However as the effects of long-term relative decline and cyclical structural crisis take hold weaker (and usually, though not always, smaller) firms begin to go broke. At this point the emergence of a full-blown crisis acts as a means to re-establish the basis of a renewed cycle of accumulation. This process if successful is inevitably at the cost to workers who are themselves engaged in a struggle to force the terms of restructuring in their favour. There are however also casualties among capital, i.e. those weaker firms that are driven out of production.

In this context monetarism is a way of hastening the process by which weaker, i.e. less competitive and profitable, firms go bust, thereby reducing the total number chasing profits. It is important to note that the strategy does not cause the recession but it does quite deliberately exacerbate it by manipulating fiscal and monetary policies in order to bring to bear the sharp point of competition and to blunt the edge of working-class struggle for its own interests. Moreover this process not only affects different sections of the workforce in different ways (e.g. higher levels of unemployment among some groups, changes in which sections of the workforce work where, etc.), but also divisions within the workforce are often manipulated in order to hasten and ease (for capital) the process of restructuring. For example the introduction of new methods of production may be done by employing more vulnerable sections of labour for these tasks, as happened at Ford's or as is happening with the increased employment of black women workers in offices at the time that new technology is being introduced.

Monetarism is also a cheap labour strategy. Therefore an additional effect of tightening the supply of money is that those firms that do survive must both shed labour, thereby increasing unemployment, and lower average wage levels for those still employed. Given that black women workers are overconcentrated in those backward, declining sectors most affected by the crisis it is not surprising that the employment effects of the recession are being disproportionately felt by black women workers.

The monetarist cheap labour strategy also has additional prongs which impact still further on black women workers. These include the attempt, in the main via the MSC (now Employment Department), to restructure the level and type of skill training available, as well as the sections of the workforce who have access to such training. For example, the abolition of sixteen of the twenty-three Industrial Training Boards, the herding of young black people on to mode B schemes of YTS with the result that their training is worse than no training at all, and the longer-term demise of any high-quality apprenticeship are all indicators of the attempt to restructure what training exists and for whom.

At one level this is related to the long-term relative decline of the British economy which was to predetermine that the daughters and sons of those who migrated as workers from the 1950s onwards were never to have access to plentiful and highly skilled occupations. At another level the restrictions and transformations in skill training are related to developments in the technology of production. Such developments have made it possible to deskill larger and larger numbers of workers. This has the effect of both lowering average wage levels and subordinating the worker to the machine (lathe or work-processor) and to further fragment the production process. Both of these impinge on the ability of the workforce to control the production process by collective action.

Important from the point of view of women's employment is the fact that technological developments in the processing and storing of information are rapidly changing the nature of work in the office, making conditions more like those in the factory which had already undergone "rationalization" with the application of Fordist and Taylorist production methods.10 For black women who have recently gained any noticeable degree of entry into office work (the 1984 PSI study shows a 10 per cent shift from manual to non-manual occupations for black women) this means that entry into these jobs does not necessarily represent an escape from the bad, hazardous, and low-paid conditions of manufacturing, but simply their resurfacing at new sites of employment.

Another effect of the monetarist strategy with potentially dire effects for black women is its impact on the growth of homeworking and sweatshops. Homeworkers are perhaps the least documented sector of workers since by the very nature of their work they tend to be excluded from government and trade union statistics. Despite this the CIS report on Women in the '80s (Counter Information Services 1981) estimated that in 1980 there were between 200,000-400,000 homeworkers. Such workers are predominantly women and many are employed in those manufacturing industries in which black women workers are concentrated, such as clothing. Consequently it is not surprising to find that clothing manufacturers in the East End of London themselves estimate that 30-50 per cent of all homeworkers engaged by them are black women (this figure includes Cypriot women).11

These workers are employed on low wages, usually piece rate, with 85 per cent earning less than £1.06 per hour in 1979 (CIS 1981). Engaged in homeworking largely because of their geographical immobility, which is itself the result of dual roles, racism in the streets, and sometimes additional cultural or linguistic factors, homeworkers often find it difficult to organize either within or outside of the trade union movement. As such this section of cheap female labour may well prove increasingly attractive to employers. This is particularly true at a time of recession and when technological developments make it at least theoretically possible to put out more and more office or manufacturing tasks to homeworkers. Thus for example developments in information technology are opening up new avenues for homeworking as when visual display units or micro-computers are installed in a home and linked to a main-frame at the regional or head office of the employing firm wherever in the world that may be. Yet clearly this type of homeworking is at present both spatially and qualitatively removed from the domestic manufacture of the clothing industry. The middle-class, university-trained housewife, expert in computer programming and based in her Berkshire detached, is far removed from her homeworking counterpart in the inner city ghettoes of London or Bradford. Yet the political link lies in the fact that both these sources of labour have been sought by capital in the attempt to recruit what it assumes to be a docile or passive labour force in the hope that its (capital's) interests can be pursued unhindered by the collective action of sections of the working class. In this sense therefore the widening use of homeworkers and the development of the technology which facilitates it is an outcome of the continuing dynamic of the class struggle to control production.

The other side of the homeworking coin often tends to be the sweatshop, an expansion of which can be expected as the inevitable outcome of successful monetarist intervention in the process of recession and the process of restructuring. Once again black women workers can be expected to be disproportionately affected by this development since it is in some of the manufacturing sectors where black women are concentrated that sweatshops predominate, for example in clothing and footwear. Moreover such sweatshops are not the exclusive preserve of the white petty bourgeois superexploiting black women's labour. It is often the case that such sweatshops are themselves black-owned businesses utilizing family and community labour. George Ward's Grunwick is a classic case in point, while Barbara Hoel (West 1982) has documented the experience of Asian women workers in Sweatshops in Coventry. In both these cases the conditions and level of exploitation were appalling and there is no prior reason, theoretical or otherwise, to assume that such conditions are not or would not be duplicated in existing or developing Caribbean-owned and -run businesses. Indeed it is factors such as these which demand an organized political response by black progressives against the current ideological promotion of the development of an Afro-Caribbean small business sector.12

The Re-creation of a Surplus Population within the Black Communities

If industrial restructuring is indicative of a crisis in the economic sense, the need for restructuring is also indicative of a crisis in the political sense in that there is a crisis in the power of relations between classes. Thus the need for economic restructuring to restore the basis for a renewed cycle of accumulation and valorization also includes a need to restructure the working class and in particular divisions between workers.

Restructuring also means then the way in which capital as a whole attempts to create new forms of accumulation in which the needs of the working classes, as expressed through their economic/political demands, are either incorporated into the new dynamic of accumulation or completely marginalized. An essential element in this process is the attempt by capital to restructure the various elements within the working class, thereby reproducing the divisions within the class. Necessarily therefore the struggle of capital to restore its domination is not confined to the site of production alone but is carried out in the sites of reproduction, i.e. those of the home and "community" together with parts of the "welfare" state. Thus the struggles of black women workers against the conditions of their exploitation in the workplace and their conditions of oppression in the community, are manifestations of a political crisis (for capital) acted out within the locus of "racialized gender/ class relations." Moreover it is struggles such as these which have contributed to the very onset of crisis and demanded a response from capital. This was particularly true because such struggles represented a rebellion of a section of the "working class" considered the most docile and marginal (by employers and trade unions alike). The consequence of this was that internal divisions within the class themselves threatened to become undermined, suggesting at least the potential for harmonization and greater unity of working-class struggles. Indeed it was this fact, together with struggles elsewhere and the increasing severity of the economic crisis, that was to provide the impetus for the state to introduce a plethora of measures designed to control the black communitics.

These measures included the integration of various government departments in the policing of inner city communities. Under the guise of tackling "crime," state agencies were to co-ordinate and share information on local populations. The Home Office, responsible for the police and immigration, was to work in conjunction with the DHSS, the DES, and the DoE in order to develop so-called crime prevention strategies at the local level. In other words information passed on by the public at the dole office, in the hospital, at the school or in the housing office was to become readily available to the police on request. Integrated surveillance brought "big brother" into the heart of the community via these state agencies and it did so precisely at a time when the relationship of the working class as a whole to these welfare agencies was itself being changed as a result of public expenditure cuts. Increasing queues at the dole and social security office; destruction of services provided by welfare agencies; and the increasing corporatization of delivery and administration of state services were further tools in the armoury of restructuring (Cockburn 1977). The agencies of welfare and coercion were coming together to attack the working class at the level of the community, but they were doing so by targeting specific fragments of the working class in specific localities.

In short the process is one in which capital is attempting to recreate a relative surplus population, with large chunks of the black population being assigned to this category of people.

Friend and Metcalfe (1981) identify this surplus population as a group more extensive than the unemployed. As a category it also includes temporary and casual workers; those working on the margins outside the tax system; the low paid, especially in the state service sector and the Sweated industries; and those dependent on state benefits. The importance of this definition lies precisely in the fact that it embraces those employed in sectors of the economy where the wages and overall condition are well below the average endured by the bulk of the working class. Examples of such sectors are homeworking, the sweated industries, cleaning, or some of the worst part of the catering industry or the fast food trade. As we already know it is precisely these areas where many black women work.13

The creation of surplus population is a necessary outcome of changes in the process of production caused by technological developments and the resultant changes in the way work is carried out and products are made. But if the creation of surplus population is located in the sphere of production, its shape and the terrain of its political control occur within the "community." In other words when women do battle over the level or form of payment of welfare benefit or the quality of service from a council department, and when black youths opt for unemployment rather than be herded into the worst jobs on offer, they are both engaged in more than a form of protest over conditions of working-class life outside of work. They are also engaged in struggles which affect the potential of capital to transform segments of the relative surplus population into a reserve army of labour which, by competing for jobs, will act as a downward pressure on wages. Additionally such struggles are also indicative of their refusal to accept incorporation into the more highly exploited occupations.

This can be seen more clearly when considering the effects of cuts on welfare and other public expenditure. Such cuts are aimed at lowering the amount the government needs to raise in order to carry out its redistributive functions. They also serve to entrench the sexual division of labour in the home by making women assume greater responsibility for domestic duties and dependants.14 This is what the current debate about "Community Care" is all about.) However precisely by lowering or removing some of the "social" wage, these cuts force more and more people to seek some form of paid employment and therefore compete for jobs that are scarce. In all probability the sectors where these people will compete for jobs will be those where the process of deskilling and the erosion of pay and conditions, including unionization, have been carried to the furthest cxtent.

Such competition only serves to entrench divisions between sections of employed and unemployed workers even though the levels of income between them may be extremely slight. Indeed it is precisely where the margins are narrow that the desire to maintain the distinction between employment and unemployment is most keenly felt by those employed in low-paid work.

This highlights the relationship between the re-creation of a surplus population and the trend towards the peripheralization of major areas of work. Peripheralization of the economy simply means that the conditions which prevail in the most highly exploited and worst-organized sectors of the economy (see note 14) become more and more widespread. This development can be seen in the growing trend towards casualization and part-time employment, abolition of wages councils, anti-trade union legislation, and decentralization, by which industries are removed from the orbit of legal control so that forms of employment protection are relaxed. Consequently larger and larger numbers of people will become part of a surplus population as a result of the conscious intervention on the part of capital and the state into the internal dynamics of capitalist production.

From this perspective we can see that just as the success of working-class struggles within the factory, office or shop influence the levels, distribution, and conditions of employment, so too the success of struggles within the "community" will have an impact on who gets work, where, and under what circumstances. Consequently the struggles of black women outside of the workplace are an important influence on their future role in the British economy.15


Taken as a whole the employment effects of the recession and the associated restructuring of both the economy and class relations paint a rather gloomy picture for the employment prospects of black women in the immediate future. On the one hand plant closure, rationalization and relocation, together with cuts and restructuring in the public sector, mean that unofficial unemployment levels will at best remain at the three million mark. On the other hand for those who continue to be engaged in waged employment, the conditions of service will continue to deteriorate as the introduction of new technology serves to deskill, fragment and control the worker. This is true in both manufacturing and office work in both the public and private sectors. Moreover as we have already seen, for those employed in the public sector, the development of multi-agency policing will mean that black people, mostly women, employed by the "welfare" services will be expected to carry out surveillance tasks on other black people. Conditions will therefore worsen in both the traditional sense of pay and terms and in the political sense of being stooges in the process of policing the black communities, and creating divisions between working-class people as capital attempts to reassert its control.

In short, the economic and political processes by which the black population is being restructured, if successful, will mean that an ever-growing proportion will become part of the relative surplus population; a prospect which was in many senses predetermined by the specific form of capital accumulation within an economy which was both growing but in long-term relative decline, the contradictions of which were exacerbated by the political struggles of black workers in the 1960s and 1970s.

This place within the surplus population is true for both those outside of and within waged labour as we have seen in the case of homeworkers, a form of waged work which may well expand as technological developments and relocation of production facilitate it. Similarly the expansion of this and similar forms of employment is very likely to be predicated on the sexual division of labour since it gives rise to a cheap and relatively immobile female labour force. In addition then to new types of homeworking other occupations may well become "feminized" as employers relocate to cheaper, more flexible (for capital) sources of labour. Thus restructuring involves not only changes in the amount and value of the wage, in the occupational and sectoral composition of employment, it also involves changes in the racial and sexual composition of employment. Indeed changes in the sexual composition of employment (undifferentiated in terms of race) associated with economic restructuring have already been documented (Massey 1985: especially Chapter 5).

However an increase in women's employment in some regions does not necessarily mean that all women workers gain access to these new employment opportunities. The spatial unevenness of the process incvitably means that the employment impact is regionally specific and reflects the contours of classes in struggle. When analysing black women's employment prospects this is of particular importance since the ruralization of production which is occurring at present means that these new avenues of employment are precisely not in the inner cities where the bulk of the black population lives. Thus even where restructuring throughout the economy is leading to the proliferation of working conditions familiar to many black women, the spatial and political aspects of restructuring may well serve to limit the employment opportunities of black working-class women, confined as they are to the inner cities which were the industrial centres of another era of accumulation.

Thus the present situation is one in which a number of trends are occurring. Whilst many existing areas of employment for black women are closing altogether or experiencing major decline, others are opening up (e.g. fast food, some office work, especially in "equal opportunity establishments"). However the extent to which these potential opportunities can be turned into real jobs, which show some movement towards qualitatively better jobs for black women, is less sure.

One thing is clear, however, and that is that is that the outcome will depend, at least in part, on the success of black women's autonomous organization both on the shop floor and outside, in the "community." The sooner this lesson is learnt by all sections of the black population and indeed all sectors of the working class as a whole the better.


1. Note that throughout this paper the term "black" will be used to refer to women and men who have immigrant or refugee status (and their descendants) and who are from the New Commonwealth or other parts of the "Third World," unless otherwise stated.

2. Recently this aspect of the Act was ruled as sexually discriminatory by the European Court of Human Rights. The British government's response has been to bring women's status in line with that of men, thereby eliminating sexual discrimination but reinforcing racism.

3. Together with workers from the underdeveloped southern Mediterranean.

4. That is, it was at least in part an attempt to increase the extraction of absolute surplus value. This is not to say that no increase in the extraction of relative surplus value occurred, but that in comparison to its international competitors the rate of increase of absolute surplus value was higher. Hence the continued use of outmoded equipment and the high degree of mobility of British capital overseas.

5. The idea of the women's wage as the second wage is indicative of the fact that the ideology of separate spheres has only been modified and not abandoned.

6. This is not to suggest the a priori existence of a "community." Indeed, it is often the case that such struggles reflect the common aspirations of a collectivity and are the process by which that is formed into a "community."

7. Anderson et al. (1983). The changes in the way in which government departments classified people as active or inactive are shown here.

8. Relative surplus-value is the production of a greater amount of value created by the worker without extending the length of the working day or the number of workers employed to produce the same amount of goods. In the main, technological developments and/or the reorganization of the work process are the means by which this increase in the extraction of surplus-value is achieved.

9. This is sometimes called an increase in the organic composition of capital. This term refers to a technical relation in that it means the amount of machinery to the number of workers. It is also a value relation in that it refers to the ratio between the value of the machinery and the value of the worker as measured by the cost of the average bundle of goods which workers buy to keep themselves going (i.e. reproduce themselves), i.e. the wage.

10. See for example Jane Barker and Hazel Downing (1980). Fordist production methods refer to the application of conveyor belt or "line" production as existed in car production, biscuit manufacture, or the production of in-flight meals at British Airways. Taylorist methods refer to the application of "scientific" methods to production, as for example the breaking down of the different aspects of producing a commodity into discrete operations.

11. Cuoted in GLC Committee Report, IEC 1011, 1983.

12. There is a whole plethora of schemes aimed at encouraging black people to solve their unemployment problem by going into business. Central and local government schemes for advice and/or financial assistance exist as do private sector ones. There is also a vociferous lobby from some sections of the black community: Business in the Community or The First Partnership Bank being two examples. An important and revealing aspect of all the rhetoric surrounding these schemes is the emphasis placed by all concerned on the supposed relationship between the development of a thriving black business sector and the cessation of inner city uprisings. The argument is that if young black people (and note here that the emphasis is on Caribbean youth) see some evidence of black investment in the country they won't protest at police harassment and brutality

13. Marx included these workers in his discussion of the Reserve Army of Labour and described it in this way: "The third category of the relative surplus population, the stagnant, forms a part of the active army, but with extremely irregular employment . . . Its conditions of life sink below the average normal level of the working class; this makes it at once the broad basis of special branches of capitalist exploitation. It is characterised by a maximum of working time and a minimum of wages." (Marx 1974: 602).

14. Cuts in public expenditure are also accompanied by the construction of more and more people as "scroungers." Simultaneously it undermines or removes the notion of people's "rights" to state-provided welfare and redefines who is entitled to these rights.

15. For example the extent to which black women were successful in gaining improvements in the education received by their children (as measured by formal academic qualifications) affected the type of jobs these black children would then expect or demand.

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