Asians denounce media myth of the corner shop: One in five driven to seek self-employment

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The Independent Online
FEW stereotypes are more enduring than that of the Asian shopkeeper. The image is that of a hard-working businessman with strong family loyalties and Thatcherite values, who makes a small fortune by exploiting every niche in the market. It is an image of success which politicians often hold up as proof of 'opportunity Britain' where even penniless immigrants can make it through hard graft and business flair. It is also, according to a new study, a myth.

Professors Trevor Jones and David McEvoy of Liverpool's John Moores University argue that the popular view of Asian business success is largely the product of 'media hype about a small minority of high-flying mega-businesses'. It is true, they say, that there are more than 200 Asian millionaires in Britain and that, of the 50 richest people in the country, five are Asian. But the vast majority of Asian enterprises are small and barely viable. It is not an opportunistic streak but a lack of other opportunities that has driven one in five to 'seek salvation in self-employment'. Recession and racism have combined, say Jones and McEvoy, not just to impede other roads to employment but to undermine Asian business ventures too.

The story of Liaquat Ali seems to bear out their argument. Until last year he owned a small grocer's shop in the Manningham district of Bradford. Mr Ali was forced to become self-employed after losing his job in the local textile mill, where a large proportion of the Asian population worked. The number of textile workers fell by two-thirds between 1968 and 1980. Asian jobs were the first to go. Racist attitudes, especially in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair, shut the door on other job prospects. 'It was almost impossible to find new jobs if you were Asian. I had no choice but to set up in business myself,' says Mr Ali.

Many of his friends became taxi drivers. 'I could never do that. It's too dangerous. You expect trouble from white customers. We've had stabbings and beatings.' Many drivers, he says, carry clutch-cables for protection.

Borrowing from family and friends, Mr Ali managed to scrape up enough money to buy a small store. 'It was pretty run down, but I could not afford any better. The bank refused me a loan.' It is a common complaint. Despite their reputation as budding entrepreneurs, Asians often find it difficult to get loans. Many banks seem to have 'red-lined' the more run-down inner-city areas where Asian enterprises are concentrated.

Even if he had the money, though, Mr Ali does not believe that he could have a bought a much better place. 'It's impossible to buy a shop in a white area. Even here I get a lot of trouble from white kids. But in a white area it just wouldn't be worth it.' The result is that Asian shopkeepers in areas such as Bradford are largely reliant on the Asian community for custom; and given the increasing numbers becoming self-employed, more and more businesses vie for the same customers.

Jones and McEvoy agree. Asian businesses, they say, tend to be crowded into the same market place. They sell the same goods and services, operate in the same area and attract the same customers. Of the Asian businesses they studied in Bradford, two-thirds were concentrated in just seven, largely Asian, inner-city wards. Virtually all were food stores, newsagents or restaurants. The average weekly turnover was barely pounds 1,000. Half the businesses went bankrupt or ceased trading.

The recession has exacerbated such problems. Not only do customers have less money to spend, but many prefer to spend it in the supermarkets with their lower mark-ups. 'The big chains with their large turnover can get discounts from the manufacturers,' says Mr Ali. 'I can't' After more than 10 years of struggling against the odds, Liaquat Ali sold up last year. Like one in three Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain, he is now unemployed.

Where Asians are successful, it has as much to do with their class as their ethnic backgrounds. Jones and McEvoy found that one in four Asian shopkeepers had a university degree, while two in five had at least one self-employed parent. Middle-class environments, they say, 'impart the 'class resources' of social skill and financial backing'.

Not surprisingly, three-quarters of profitable Asian businesses have owners who come from business families. This is particularly true of Asians from East Africa, whose families formed the backbone of the professional classes there and who now run a large proportion of the successful Asian businesses in Britain. Despite the popular belief that Asians have a different work or business ethos, their attitudes and beliefs are little different from similar white or Afro-Caribbean businessmen. Their ideas and opinions are moulded not by their race or cultural background but by the needs of their business.

Bhavna Patel runs a newsagents in south London with her husband Bharat. She came to Britain from Uganda as a schoolgirl in the early Seventies, one of thousands of ethnic Indians who were expelled by Idi Amin's regime. Her parents owned an electronics firm in Uganda. Her brother runs a pharmacy. Her husband was previously an accountant.

Having such a family background, she says, has been very helpful. Yet even with such strong family support, the Patels find it very difficult to survive. They open the shop 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. 'It is still a struggle,' says Mrs Patel, who has to work part-time to help make ends meet.

The Patels have three daughters. What are their hopes for their children's future? 'I want them to study,' says Mrs Patel. 'Perhaps become a pharmacist, or a doctor or a lawyer. I hope they don't have to be shopkeepers.' The Patels' unwillingness to let their children take over their business is a common attitude. Less than 10 per cent of Asian businessmen or women were born in Britain.

Jones and McEvoy feel that the business opportunities for ethnic minorities have been hampered by 'the artificial 'racial' identity which has been foisted on to Asians and Afro-Caribbeans'. Asians are seen as just shopkeepers, Afro-Caribbeans as lacking any business flair. And both groups are subject to discrimination.

'The trouble is that it's not our country,' says Kishor Wadher, 'and we are always at a disadvantage. But we know that if we sit on our backsides we will get nothing. We have to be twice as good as white people to survive.'

Like Bhavna Patel, Mr Wadher came over from Uganda in the early Seventies. He initially trained to be a toolmaker. Finding himself unable to get a job, he decided to go into business. His first venture, a grocer's shop in Islington, north London, was blighted by the racist attitudes of his largely white customers. 'They were abusive. They hassled me, they painted slogans on the walls.' His last business, a grocery shop in Chingford, closed down because of the recession. Now he is trying again, with a general store in Walthamstow.

Does he think the return from the business is worth the hours he puts in and the hassle he receives? 'Not really,' he says. 'But perhaps it will improve in the future. Anyway, what else could I do?'

(Photograph omitted)

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