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20 November 2000

Down and out above an Indian restaurant

Jeremy Seabrook meets an economic migrant from Dhaka, doing his bit to keep UK inflation in check

By Jeremy Seabrook

Khaled called. He sounded upset. I arranged to meet him at London’s Euston station, close to where he was staying. He wore a knitted Balaclava and a cheap plastic jacket: he looked like a mixture of terrorist and migrant. He was thinner than I remembered him from Dhaka, diminished by cold and privation. We sat at a plastic table on the food concourse, in front of illuminated panels of baked potatoes, burgers and pizzas. He couldn’t eat or drink because it was Ramadan. He said: “I have to go home. I can’t afford to stay.”

A friend who was studying in London had persuaded him, with an enthusiastic letter, to come and join him here. You can do anything here. Life is a party. Forget struggling in Bangladesh. You can earn money to pay for the course, no problem.

Khaled persuaded his father to sell the last of the family land. It didn’t amount to much, but it had made them self-supporting in rice for nine months in the year. This raised about £1,000. The family contributed their lifetime’s savings – £700. A brother, a buyer in a garment factory, lent him £500. Other relatives found the money for the fare. That gave him half the cost of the one-year course in hotel management at a private college in London. Reassured by his friend’s optimism, he thought he would earn the rest.

The sacrifice of land is irreversible. To educate his children, Khaled’s father had parted with his most precious resource. To sell land is the most serious wager a subsistence farmer can make – it is a gesture of faith in the modern world that it will provide, not only for the children, but for all subsequent generations. Perhaps the ambition lingers to buy back the land one day, so that this desperate throw will be only a temporary break in an ancient tradition of self-reliance.

Khaled’s mother went with him to the river terminal in Barisal, from where he would go by river to Dhaka. As she kissed him goodbye, she said: “Now I shall stop weeping, because you are in the hands of Allah.” Her son, although he was 28, was frightened: the hope he carried was almost too great to bear.

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But he was going to get out of Bangladesh! This is what so many unemployed graduates and disconsolate young men dream of as they pay over money to agents who, as often as not, disappear with it; or, if they are lucky, get them a job as a driver, security guard or houseboy in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh. Once there, they have to unlearn everything their education has taught them, in order to enter the world of gilded servility, and to send the remittances that will help the family survive back home in the village. In Bangladesh, they would rather remain unemployed than do menial work; abroad, no one sees the humiliations they endure.

The London of the buses and parks and famous buildings was familiar to Khaled. The London of racism, of a shared, underheated bedsit over an Indian restaurant, was not. Khaled soon discovered that with his student visa he was allowed to work 20 hours a week. He got a job immediately, serving and clearing away breakfast in a big hotel, six o’clock in the morning till noon, five days a week, minimum wage. This gave him £78. The room he shared with his friend cost £70 a week, with meals. How could he cover his expenses and pay the remaining college fees on £8 a week?

The other young Bangladeshi men he met made light of his predicament. Get married, they urged, get lost, get real. Go underground, disappear, forget the visa, make as much money as you can, so you have something to show for it. The friend who had told him how easy it was had an uncle who owned a restaurant. It didn’t matter whether he studied or not. He had quickly learnt that London offers the kind of good time people in Dhaka dream about, and he spent his evenings in pubs and discos. He had girlfriends who found him exotic. He loved it.

But Khaled was serious about getting the qualification that would provide him with work in one of the few five-star hotels at home. He would rather go back than go underground. But to return and face the family who had sacrificed everything – the shame would be unbearable.

To go home a failure is not an option; and this is perhaps the most powerful pressure on people from the developing world to overstay, to take any job, to hide, to work at any price, to put up with any indignity, to grin or to pretend not to understand the racist remarks, to risk being cheated or beaten.

The next instalment for the college was due in January. Khaled managed to borrow a few hundred from a cousin, and I made up the shortfall. Perhaps mine were, after all, the unlikely and impious hands of Allah to which his mother had commended him.

He had no trouble finding a night job in an Indian restaurant, seven days a week, 6pm till midnight, at weekends till two or three in the morning. He would be working 50 hours a week for £80 – about £1.60 an hour. He moved his lodging, so that he was sharing with another young Bengali, £70 a week between them, a sublet in a council flat; austere, minimal lives, bare electric light, lumpy bed, condensation on rusty window frames, a threadbare carpet, a single Windsor chair. Meals were provided at the restaurant, snatched in quiet moments between serving customers.

He was getting up at 5.30 in the morning, working legally from 6am till midday, going to college from noon until 5.30pm, then off to the restaurant in Tottenham Court Road from 6pm until midnight – 18 hours, some days more. Monday and Tuesday mornings he was free, so he used that time to study, to do his washing, to sleep. He said: “Pray for me that I keep my health.”

He was so tired whenever I met him that his concentration would go, and he often didn’t hear what I was saying. His other friends had long ago accepted the inevitable. They disappeared. Some found refuge in restaurants, others worked in fast-food joints, laundries, hotels, in private houses as cooks, servants. Most had abandoned any idea of studying.

It is an open secret that illegal immigrants, working for below-minimum wages, help to depress wage levels, and therefore keep inflation in check – an achievement for which the government takes credit, while at the same time denouncing the “economic migrants” who make it possible. All who castigate illegals and overstayers and seekers of asylum are, like the rest of us, direct beneficiaries of a desperation of which they cannot conceive.

Khaled survived. When his course finished, he had a debt of £3,000. To repay that from earnings in Dhaka would take years. He decided to stay on for six months so that he could go home without owing money. When the debt was cleared, he didn’t stay a day longer than necessary. His contemporaries called him stupid. Most are not going back.

Khaled and his family’s epic sacrifice made a small contribution to the British economy. He paid more than £5,500 for his qualification, he worked as sweated labour, he did his bit for wage inflation.

And he was only occasionally abused by racists.