Huddled around the lone telephone in Meeting Room Twelve, how we end up talking about the potentially explosive subjects of immigration and living on the dole escapes me, but once the first, tentative blows are struck, it all takes off from there. There is me – very Nigerian, Ahmed – devout Muslim, Pakistani – born, but as English as they come and Steph – part free thinker, part new-ager, also British. We are waiting for the phone call which will initiate a teleconference – one which should have started a full ten minutes earlier.
Immigration and immigrants have been on the front pages again (are they not always on there these days?) – the Prime Minister has been seeking to regain the front foot on the subject by proposing a raft of changes aimed at projecting a tougher stance; stricter financial conditions for sponsoring spouses and a revamped citizenship test amongst others.
Interestingly, next to the surfeit of Poles in our building, the bitterest vitriol is reserved for people living on the dole. Ahmed and Steph both agree that the government is too soft on people living on the dole and argue that quite a few of the jobs filled by Poles (and other Africans) in our office building could conceivably be done by Brits, if the benefits system didn’t reward laziness. I counter with the argument that a civilised government owes a duty of care to its citizens. I add that I suspect that the crimes are less serious than they would be if people were driven by hunger to desperation.
Steph agrees with the crime rate argument but insists that the freebies effectively incentivise not working. [Apparently merely being an unwed mother with three children could net a woman around about £30k/yr in benefits, which would be what a Graduate RustGeek would get after the first year of working at KOX Corp].
Ahmed is less tolerant of either argument, and insists that a sense of entitlement is what is to blame. Try eking out a living in Pakistan – he says, and you’ll have no grounds to complain about not being able to buy Jordan trainers. That sentiment might have its merits, but I suspect it is a gross simplification. Ahmed’s sausage soft hands and penchant for milky weak tea are hardly posters for eking out a living by any standard.
These are difficult conversations to have. As the one immigrant whose
strongest only claim to Britishness is being conceived between swigs of coffee and PhD research on a November night in Bristol in the 70s [I was born in an obscure Nigerian town by the way, so this obscure fact doesn’t count], I am as much at ease as an old woman when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb. They reassure me though that I am different. Just how different I am, and for how long that difference will last remains to be seen, but I suspect I will always be a different sort of ‘them‘ – not that I am keen to ever become ‘us‘ though.
Thirty minutes later, our meeting is still yet to start. All that is on my mind is to get this meeting over with and kick start the weekend.