Cathy Mcllwaine, academic and co-author of the study ‘No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London’

Oct 14, 2013 Comments Off on Cathy Mcllwaine, academic and co-author of the study ‘No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London’ by

By Marisel Mendoza

The study ‘No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London’, carried out between 2009 and 2010, has become a valuable reference point, contributing to increased visibility of the reality of Latin Americans living in London. The investigation was overseen by academics Cathy Mcllwaine, Juan Camilo Cock and Brian Linneker of Queen Mary, University of London, together with the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (Servicio por los Derechos de la Mujer Latinoamericana), and was given financial backing by the Trust for London, an important philanthropic organisation.

The study is the most extensive and detailed look to date at the Latin American community in the English capital. A total of 1,014 women and men of different Latin American nationalities, ages and socio-economic groups, in addition to representatives from various community organisations, participated in the quantitative surveys, which made enquiries into a number of areas.

The principal results of the investigation are discussed in this interview with Cathy Mcllwaine, a professor of Geography at Queen Mary with an accomplished academic and investigative career. Her work in the area of transnational migration is especially notable, and a great part of her investigation has centred on Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and particularly Colombia.

Ventana Latina: What were the main results of the research?

Cathy Mcllwaine: In terms of the results, this was also one of the first studies that looked across the full socio-economic spectrum. We interviewed professionals, we interviewed people working as cleaners, we interviewed across classes and professions. And so that was our starting point. The key issue that came out in relation to labour market position was that so many Latin Americans ended up working in very low-skilled, low-paid jobs even though they were professionals and were very well educated. A very high proportion (around 70 percent) had post-high school education, yet almost half were working in these low paid jobs. So that was probably one of the key findings: a lack of social mobility, indeed downward occupational mobility. That was probably one of the most important issues. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t Latin Americans working in the City in professional jobs.

We also found very high levels of overcrowding in housing, particularly amongst irregulars. As London is much more expensive than people imagine it to be, housing is a big issue.

Other important findings were a very low take-up of welfare, even by people who were British Citizens and had access to the benefits system, and a high proportion of people sending money home.

VL: What were the main reasons for Latin American migration found in the research?

CM: The initial groups were those who came in exile fleeing the dictatorships and so on of the 1970s. These were Colombians, Chileans, Ecuadorians to an extent, Uruguayans and Argentinians. They were very important in terms of setting up organisations for Latin Americans in London.

Then Colombians began to arrive in larger numbers, using work permits in the 70s. They were the first sort of largish group who came to work in the low paid sectors. They came with work permits to start with, but then in the ’80s and ’90s because of the armed conflict in Colombia, many came to claim asylum. A lot of Colombians got their regularisation and their British passports through the asylum system. That still functions to an extent, but obviously with the Colombians political and economic factors are very much intertwined. Social factors also play a role because once one set of people has come, it has relatives and friends who then have contacts in London and begin to come as well. This also certainly happened with the Ecuadorians and Peruvians as well. Ecuadorians and Peruvians have a longer history in terms of coming here since the ’80s. Some of them came for political reasons and many for economic reasons.

The most recent flows in terms of Brazilians and Bolivians are due primarily to economic reasons, but the social relationships they’ve built up are important as well.

VL:  As a whole, what did you find is the profile of the Latin American community in London?

CM:  I think it’s an educated community in general, but again they tend to have to end up working in jobs that don’t match their qualifications. They live in all parts of London but are also concentrated in inner London – Southwark, Haringay, Lambeth, Islington, Newham, Hackney.

There is a growing second generation in terms of the community. Each nationality has a different profile due to when they arrived and when they became established.

For example, the Colombians are the second largest community at the moment, but are one of the most established along with Chileans and Argentines who came as exiles.

The Colombians were the first flow to come to work particularly in the low-paid sectors. They are much more likely to be regular and to have British passports and residency. Their profile is very different from, say, the Bolivians, who have come much more recently and many of whom are irregular because they arrived on tourist or student visas and overstayed. So their profile is much more different as they find it difficult to regularise.

Brazilians are by far the largest group but are a much more recent flow. They are a mixture because there are quite a few professionals, but also a high level of irregulars because of the visa situation.

Latin Americans in the London labour market

According to the information generated by ‘No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London’, approximately 47 percent of Latin Americans who participated in the study work in positions within the laboral sector known as ‘basic’ (cleaners, kitchen staff, doormen, waiters, domestic help or security guards). Despite this statistic, the community is highly educated, with 70 percent having some post-secondary school education and 13 percent having completed a university or post-graduate degree.

VL:  How do Latin Americans integrate into the London labour market? What are the issues and challenges?

CM: There is an issue with speaking English. This is one of the main barriers to occupational mobility – they need to be able to speak English before they can get decent jobs. So they do end up working in the low-paid sector – security, cleaning, kitchen work – which doesn’t reflect their ability.

The other thing to highlight is the importance of Latin Americans to the functioning of the City. In terms of how the City functions, they do a lot of the jobs that other people won’t do, particularly the Bolivians and irregular migrants. They do jobs like office cleaning. They get up at 4am in the morning and do these jobs.

The other issue is being able to transfer qualifications from Latin America to be accepted in the British system. That’s also an issue, particularly in areas like nursing, for example, or accountancy. You have to re-sit all the exams and so this can take a long time and cost a lot of money.

In general, in the low-paid sector we found high levels of workplace exploitation. And this was mainly, for example, in the cleaning sector.

VL:  What is your view of the Latin American Recognition Campaign in the UK? 

CM: One of the recommendations from the report was actually support for the Latin American Recognition Campaign. And I think the research has been important in terms of providing a resource for the campaign to help move it forward. The Latin American Recognition Campaign and also CLAUK (Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK) are very important organisations.

VL: What is your opinion about the official inclusion of Latin Americans as an ethnic category by Southwark Council?

CM: Southwark Council is the first council to recognise Latin Americans as an ethnic category and this is important for various reasons in that is raises the profile of Latin Americans and allows better monitoring to see how many exist, in addition to identifying their needs. Basically, local councils have a responsibility to the residents in their boroughs to meet their needs. If they don’t know that Latin Americans exist, Latin Americans will have to tick a box that says ‘other’, and there will be no sense of a community.

That’s not to say that all Latin Americans are the same or that there’s not massive diversity between Latin Americans, but there is the shared Spanish language (with the exception of Portuguese) and there is some shared culture within the community. In addition, many of the same obstacles are faced in terms of workplace abuses, in terms of housing problems, in terms of accessing healthcare. So it’s very important to know what their needs are, and to have them as an ethnic category to raise their profile and meet those needs.


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