Enterprise and Small Business Principles

Family and co-ethnic labour

A further prominent characteristic of EMBs is the use made of family and co-ethnic labour. Such labour is often portrayed as a critical source of ‘competitive advantage’ for ethnic business, since it is often cheap and the problem of supervision is made easier (Mitter, 1986). It is widely held that their rapid expansion into such labour-intensive lines as clothing manufacture, catering and above all convenience retailing is enabled by their superior capacity to tap into a ready supply of labour power, thus equipping them to work long unsocial hours at their customers’ convenience (Ward, 1991). South Asian-owned firms are often seen as the exemplars of the ‘family business’. Very similar tendencies have also been attributed to Greek Cypriots and the Chinese. For the former,

Curran and Blackburn (1994) observe that because their entrepreneurs are intensely concentrated in the restaurant trade, they work very long hours boosted by ordering and collecting supplies. The Chinese are even more specialised in restaurants and take­aways and, consequently, exposed to extremely long hours of work in order to obtain a competitive cost advantage (Parker, 1994: 622). Among many factors, it is above all this competitive undercutting which has enabled the Chinese takeaway, in a large part, to replace the traditional English ‘chippie’ in many areas (Liao, 1992). The personal toll on the business families in question is often considerable, as Parker (1994: 622) notes: ‘the whole of family life and the domestic economy [is] shaped by the takeaway’.

The facility of family labour does not appear to be as extensively utilised within African-Caribbean enterprise (Reeves and Ward, 1984). Explanations accounting for this include the more ‘egalitarian’ nature of the African-Caribbean family unit (Basu,

1991) and the lack of scope for enlisting unskilled family labour in the type of busi­ness sectors that the community tend to be involved in (Curran and Blackburn, 1993). Further corroboration is provided by Curran and Blackburn’s (1993) study of Greek- Cypriot, Bangladeshi and African-Caribbean businesses; family labour was used least by African-Caribbeans. Curran and Blackburn explain this by reference not only to the nature of family culture, but also to the community’s dispersed business activities. For instance, the type of unskilled or semi-skilled family labour that characterises many ethnic minority firms may not be particularly appropriate in sectors like personal or professional services, where African-Caribbeans are involved.

However, two points that question the conventional wisdom on labour intensiveness and family labour, particularly in relation to South Asian businesses, need to made. First, long working hours tend to be prevalent across the small firm population (Curran and Burrows, 1988a). When Jones et al. (1994b) examined this question with South Asian, African-Caribbean and White small business owners, they found that ethnic minority respondents did operate more labour-intensive practices than is customary, but these ‘were as much a function of sectoral distribution and of external pressures as of spe­cific ethnic cultural and behavioural traits’ (Jones et al., 1994b: 201).

Second, the tendency to view the ‘family’ as an unqualified resource for the ethnic entrepreneur also needs to be more closely scrutinised. A growing body of evidence argues that ‘culturalist’ portrayals of the family at work are often one-dimensional; they fail to appreciate the extent to which primacy often accorded to the family can con­strain business development (Barrett et al., 1996; Ram, 1992, 1994a; Ram et al., 1995; Phizacklea and Ram, 1996). In other words, over-reliance on the family can actually get in the way of economic rationality. Ram’s (1994) ethnographic study of South Asian employers in the West Midlands clothing sector documents many instances where family members were retained in the business despite a lack of competence; where regular breaches of discipline were ignored; and where family workers secured equal remuneration despite varying contributions to the business. Hence the role of the family in ethnic minority enterprises is frequently ‘double-edged’, a point rarely given suffici­ent attention in the more celebratory accounts of minority business (see Chapter 11 for a fuller discussion of the role of family in enterprise).

The ‘family’ label also tends to mask the unequal nature of gender relations in ethnic minority firms (Dhaliwal, 1998; Mitter, 1986; Phizacklea, 1990). This is evident in terms of ownership; Barrett et al. (1996) speculate that many male-owned businesses conceal the extent of women’s centrality to the enterprise. It is also clear that women’s contribution in the day-to-day activities of the business is often unacknowledged. Recent studies on the internal management processes in ethnic businesses (Ram, 1992, 1994; Phizacklea and Ram, 1996) and, indeed, small firms per se (Fletcher, 1997; Holliday,

1995) illuminate the often critical contributions that women play in managing the business (see Chapter 9).

Often the scale of operation can be too large to be handled by family workers alone, as for example in many restaurants and clothing factories run by Asians in Britain. In order to maintain an essential degree of trust, such firms tend to restrict their hiring of non-family workers to members of their own ethnic community, using informal word - of-mouth methods of recruitment (Jones et al., 1994b). Once again, it is often assumed that the bonds of common ethnic membership make for harmonious, mutually bene­ficial, working relationships, with paternalistic goodwill rendering unnecessary such practices as written contracts, formal wage bargaining and legal rights. However, evid­ence from employees themselves suggests that, in many instances, paternalistic benevol­ence provides a smokescreen for unacceptably low pay and long hours (Gillman et al., 2002), especially for low-skilled workers subject to discrimination in the mainstream labour market, whose job choice and bargaining leverage is minimal (Ram et al., 2001). More recently, too, researchers have highlighted a growing reliance on illegal immigrant workers on the part of struggling firms desperate to cut costs in order to survive (Ram et al., 2002). Such workers represent the extremes of vulnerability, absolutely without any employment rights or bargaining power whatsoever (CARF, 1997; Staring, 2000).

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