Chefs wearing whites at work in the kitchen at Wheelers Sovereign Restaurant. The chef in the foreground is talking on a telephone. Black and white photo taken 1960-1980.
Wheelers Sovereign Restaurant, Mayfair. Photo by John Gay, 1960-80 © Historic England AA087901
Wheelers Sovereign Restaurant, Mayfair. Photo by John Gay, 1960-80 © Historic England AA087901


At the end of the First World War most African, Caribbean and Asian people lived in port cities and many were seafarers, serving in the merchant fleet both in war and peace time.

It was in these cities that large scale racist attacks occurred in 1919. Even after this time there were laws that discriminated against 'coloured' people and made it difficult for them to find employment. This problem continued during the Second World War.

At the end of the Second World War there was a significant skills and labour gap in England. Many men had been killed or injured in the war and women were encouraged to return to their work in the home. More manpower was needed.

Recruitment drives in former colonies

The Royal Commission on Population reported in 1949 that immigrants of 'good stock' would be welcomed 'without reserve'. Migrants from the Caribbean, such as those on the SS Empire Windrush who arrived from Jamaica in June 1948, were often able to find employment. In the 1950s there were government led recruitment drives in former colonies, like the Caribbean.

Migrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia in this period were often forced to live in the poorest areas or where work was plentiful such as London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. Even in the 1950s and 1960s a colour bar existed in employment, for example on Bristol's buses.

Some employers such as the NHS and London transport recruited in the Caribbean, other migrants were employed on British Rail, or by the big car manufacturers such as Fords in Dagenham and British Leyland in Longbridge, Birmingham.

Pakistani migrants were often drawn to the textile mills of West Yorkshire and Lancashire and towns such as Bradford.

Many African and Caribbean women were employed as nurses by the NHS. Even today between 15-20% of NHS employees are of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage.

As the world of work has become ever more diverse, work places have changed and with them the workforce. From entrepreneurs, teachers, sportspeople, nurses, architects, waiters and waitresses and scientists, Black and Asian people are part of a diverse job market.

The struggle for equality at work

This has not happened easily and Black and Asian people have often had to fight for their rights. For example the famous strike at Grunwicks in London from 1976-1978, the Bristol Bus boycott in 1963, or the strike at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974. Even today, there are certain professions where Black and Asian people remain underrepresented such as the legal profession, academia, politics and the corporate sector.