The UK’s newest front-line workers: Afghan fruit sellers
They have fled disaster and conflict in their home country. Now, they find themselves working on the front line of a pandemic – without any protective equipment – in another one.
Birmingham, England – It is 8am in the vibrant South Asian high street of Alum Rock, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Birmingham, the United Kingdom’s second-largest city.
Removing the draped blue tarpaulin held in place by several upside-down crates to cover his stall, Abdul Nafi, 31, artistically arranges fresh and juicy looking fruit and vegetables along his wooden structured, shop-front table. He sells bowls of tomatoes and peppers, apples and plums from £1 (around $1.35); the display looks inviting from a considerable distance, with more boxes of fresh produce stocked behind in the shop.
“Here, the community doesn’t get their fruit and vegetables from supermarkets, they prefer to get it from stands like mine,” he says, also indicating three other stallholders down the street. “If we decide to stop working, where will people get the ripest and cheapest produce in the area?”
Hazel-eyed and smiling with a light, trimmed beard and neatly cut hair, Nafi explains that he arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker in 2010 from the Paktia province in the east of Afghanistan, a place far removed from the city he lives in today. Paktia has long been a target for the Taliban and many people have been attacked and killed there. Nafi is reluctant to dwell on the life he has left behind him in Afghanistan, but says he was unemployed and unable to feed his family. A year after he arrived here, he was granted asylum and began working as a fruit and vegetable trader in Birmingham. Now that he has found a stabler life, his family survives on the money he sends home from the UK.
And now, on the front line of an epidemic, he is considered a “key worker” – the UK’s term for people with vital jobs to keep the country going during the pandemic – valiantly reporting to his stall site daily, in an area which has been hard hit by coronavirus, along with other largely South Asian neighbourhoods in Birmingham, including Sparkhill and Sparkbrook.
How to socially distance on a market stall?
Despite belonging to a member of an ethnic minority group in the UK with a higher risk of suffering complications from COVID-19, and working without any personal protective equipment (PPE), Nafi continues to provide his community with vital vitamins and minerals that count towards the five-a-day.
Since the national lockdowns began last March, the term “key worker” emerged to define the people who deliver essential services to the public. Alongside the respected healthcare workers, the UK government’s list of key workers also includes people who are involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery.
PPE for non-healthcare workers has not been deemed necessary by the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Instead, the government says on its website, “practising good hand hygiene and social distancing are key to minimising the risk of infection”.
But, for fruit and vegetable stall-handlers like Nafi, the established rules of physical distancing are difficult to follow as these workers are always in close proximity to other people.
With a population of 25,487, the inner suburb of Alum Rock fills quickly with shoppers each morning. As customers begin to arrive and surround Nafi’s stall, they squeeze, smell and tap the fresh produce before making their final selections.
The decrease in customers since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus last year has meant less income and Nafi worries about being able to afford more sophisticated personal protection against transmission of the virus.
“Since I’ve noticed supermarket cashiers working behind protective plastic shields, I am thinking to also install one in front of my stall,” he says.
“But, before the pandemic, I was making sales of £200 daily, and now it has dropped to £80. During the first lockdown, I didn’t even have the money to pay for the rent on my house. When everyone was trying to help each other, my landlord was constantly demanding rent. I had to borrow from a few friends.”
Images of home
Browsing the colourful, stacked produce, a mother wheeling two small children in a buggy arrives at Nafi’s stall. She is dressed in an ivory headscarf and a matching gown of soft material falling in loose graceful folds, and carefully picks bowls filled with fresh, loose okra and dark-green, wrinkly karela (bitter melon).
“Can you add an extra karela,” she asks politely as Nafi helps her pack her selection into a bag. He adds one extra.
Alongside boxes of melons, mangos, pineapples and other tropical fruits, the shop-front stall also displays vegetables not so often seen in the UK, like the karela. For shoppers and passers-by, this evokes the familiar image of “homeland” while, for others, it is an opportunity to try something new.
The Afghan community here is relatively new compared with other ethnic groups. So far, they say, their community fellows and customers seem to have welcomed them.
Taj Hussain, 65, a resident, reflects on how the Afghan stalls are prominent features on the Alum Rock high street.
“These stalls are a site of social interaction, out of doors. They allow you to connect with other people, something which is currently not possible indoors. They are a focal point for the Alum Rock community to speak with each other in a public space while buying their fruit and veg,” he says.
“The Afghans know those who live near, they are recognised and welcomed by local shopkeepers, the elderly and other friends in the community.”
Hussain often buys fruit and vegetables from the stalls here, wandering between them to see who has the freshest items on any given day.
Alamgir Khan, 45, a local Pakistani customer, also welcomes the “bargains” offered by Afghan sellers.
“It is natural that customers bargain on costs. But here, there is no need,” he says. “We are already getting more for less. Even then, as I shop regularly from my Afghan brothers, they always give me extra, sometimes an orange or even a banana. They are all like my brothers. They are aware of this. We are neighbours, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Research by This is Money, the personal finance website, shows that shoppers save 32 percent by buying fruit and vegetables from market stalls compared with supermarkets. So, as panic-buyers emptied the shelves of larger supermarkets and concerns grew about social distancing in the shopping aisles earlier in 2020, the people of Alum Rock found their five-a-day outdoor stalls a central part of community life.
“When I first arrived in the UK, I could only speak Pashto,” Nafi says. “Now, dealing with different customers every day, I have picked up many languages: Persian, Urdu, Punjabi and English.
“The customers are really happy with me. They are delighted to be able to buy some of their traditional cuisine ingredients at a good price, which are not found in chain stores or supermarkets. We get them fresh from the wholesale market. All of Birmingham gets it from there, in the early morning hours.”
Birmingham’s Wholesale Market has existed in one form or another since 1166, exactly 100 years after the Normans successfully invaded England at the Battle of Hastings. It provides fruit and vegetables, fish, poultry, meat and flowers, sourced from all over the world, including Pakistan and India, from where produce is especially popular with the Afghan stallholders as many items, such as karela melons, are close enough to traditional Afghan fare. The Wholesale Market, which sells to traders at wholesale prices, has continued to do so throughout the pandemic, enabling customers like the Afghan stallholders to access fresh, low-cost produce every day.
Eddie Price, managing director of Birmingham Wholesale Market, says: “The traditional demographic of the market has changed completely over the years. Without the ethnic community, the market would not be so successful. A phenomenal amount of fresh produce wouldn’t be available. The traders supply independent retailers, and the biggest market for independent retail in Birmingham is the ethnic community.
“The Birmingham City Council invested millions into the Wholesale Market because of the growing presence that the Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean traders bring to the market,” says Price.
Andrew Barnes, general manager at Birmingham Wholesale Market, adds: “The measures we have put in place have enabled us to keep the market open. Anybody that visits the site has to wear a mask and follow the general social distancing. At the start of the lockdown, we handed out a leaflet and a free mask to everybody who came through the doors.”
From one disaster zone to another
Having already escaped danger in one country – both physically and mentally – Nafi now finds himself negotiating the challenges of being a front-line worker in another country, this time one beset by a viral epidemic. The UK has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, most recently seeing borders closed with other countries in Europe and beyond because of fears of a new strain there.
When asked how it feels to find himself on the front line of a pandemic in a foreign country, however, Nafi is upbeat and good-natured. “Thankfully, I haven’t caught the virus yet. Life is still good. Almost all our customers wear their masks. Everyone is being careful and looking after each other.”
The combination of lower wages and higher health risks already places many Afghan front-line workers in a vulnerable position in the UK. These pressures are taking their toll.
Hameed Hakimi, a researcher on Afghanistan at Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank based in London, explains how COVID-19 has affected Afghan families very hard in the UK.
“It’s multi-layered,” he says. “In most cases, predominantly male Afghans have turned up in the UK as asylum seekers, and they are single earners. When you’re on that trajectory of life and you come from a country with such substantial levels of conflict and challenges for decades, you are starting life from minus zero. Then you build your ability to climb the ladder of social mobility, economic ability and also educational pathways. In the face of all of this, when the pandemic hits, it all becomes very tough.
“From my conversations with a lot of Afghan families – on visits at Afghan supermarkets with shopkeepers – I gathered that everyone I spoke to knew someone who had COVID or whose entire family had COVID. There is a big number of the Afghan community affected.
“And then, it’s the kind of work that they are involved in, front-line jobs, minicab drivers, food delivery drivers with Uber Eats and Deliveroo. That doesn’t pay them much. So, then they also have to work in a supermarket or as fruit and vegetable traders, juggling with different jobs, zero-hour contracts, lack of PPE and employment security. But, they still excel.
“The story of Afghanistan and family conditions back home are not helping either. Many have borrowed money to leave their country and are under high pressures that demand them to work and send money home.”
Hakimi says these issues are compounded by the fact that Afghans are underrepresented in terms of census data, meaning their needs are more likely to be overlooked by the UK government. “According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), about 80,000 Afghans are living in the UK, which is calculated based on the place of birth provided in their passports. However, many Afghan refugees were born in Iran and Pakistan, and along the migration pathway, with some children born in the UK. Yet, that is not accounted for in the national statistics, although they make up the diaspora group.
“In Afghanistan, the ratio of migration is 70 percent, which means wherever you find Afghans in the world, up to 70 percent of them have experienced either direct or indirect migration. Some are over the age of 18, while others are under 18,” he adds.
‘I miss the weather’
When Nafi talks about Afghanistan and his family, who still live between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he looks up at the sky, raindrops landing on his face.
“I miss the weather in Afghanistan,” he says as he pulls the latch handle to fully extend the canopy over his stall to ward off the rain that frequently falls on the city.
“I go to Pakistan instead. My family comes to meet me over there from Afghanistan. We stay together for two to three months.”
Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, has been the first key country of asylum for Afghans since the 1970s. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 1.4 million registered Afghans have fled to Pakistan since the Soviet military intervention of 1979 and later conflicts including the ensuing Taliban power grab and the American occupation in the 2000s. UNHCR estimates that more than 172,000 Afghans entered Pakistan in 2000 alone.
Further along Alum Rock Road, the main high street through this neighbourhood, past numerous fish and chip shops and bridal boutiques with dazzling window displays, Nafi’s cousin, Abdul Rauf, 19, is helping another cousin run his shop-front fruit and veg stall.
Rauf, dressed in a black jacket with matching white side-stripe joggers and a mini pouch bag, smiles while showing off his newly acquired college student card. He has enrolled on a government-assisted plumbing course in Birmingham as an asylum-seeking young person.
He arrived in the UK when he was just 16 and, as a minor, had the right to education under Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
“I wanted to work in Afghanistan, but I couldn’t because of the problems between political parties,” he says.
Youth unemployment is a symptom of political instability in Afghanistan. Although the country has made progress in providing educational opportunities for young people there, students still frequently find themselves jobless after graduation, due to the lack of youth employment strategies. In 2020, the unemployment rate in Afghanistan hovered above 11 percent. The lack of job opportunities pushes young people to leave the country in a bid to find a better future elsewhere.
“Here, I want to make a future. My cousin [who he works with] helped me come to the UK. He has been here for 12 years and has a good life,” he says.
After years of enduring struggle, the future was finally looking bright for Rauf – until the pandemic struck. Now, working at his cousin’s stall, he is concerned about handling cash from customers during the pandemic.
“We should not be touching anything. But, can you imagine an older person paying by card for a £1 bowl of bananas? A contactless payment system is challenging for the elderly in this community. We don’t have a card machine or any digital payment tools either. We have to exchange money hand to hand,” he says.
On the front line of the pandemic
On the opposite corner of the street from the stall that Rauf works at, a little further down the road, alongside several chicken takeaway restaurants, are two more fruit and vegetable stalls run by Afghan sellers.
“Afghanistan has a long tradition in horticulture, known for the production of some fine fruits, such as the famous Kandahar pomegranate, dried fruits and nuts,” says stall keeper Zar Nabi, 30, in a soft voice through his surgical face mask. “So many of us are already familiar with the quality of most of the fruit and vegetables.”
Across from him, his hair neatly parted in the middle, is 22-year-old Zahrib, who is shy and does not give his surname. He sells fresh naan for £1, alongside the fruit and vegetables on sale in the shop behind his stall. Just before closing his stall at 7pm, he discards the odd leftover while stacking the empty bowls inside one another.
“If the rain continues to pour and pour like today, then we hardly get customers,” he says disappointedly. This means unsold produce going to waste.
Zahrib explains that he arrived in the UK in 2017 from Kabul, which he describes as a city “destroyed by the bombing”.
“I did not feel safe there and never had any work,” he says about the city of his birth.
He fled through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, before he travelled to Europe and into the UK, where he has been granted leave to remain as a refugee.
Today, he is on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, trading through adverse weather conditions, under his stall-shelter, supported by four poles.
“I stand out here during the rain, the wet weather and cold winter months.”
On to the UK government’s lockdown restrictions, he says: “It has only brought further loss.”
‘Sales are down 65 percent’
More than any other trade, Afghan asylum seekers have moved into the fresh fruit and vegetable market. According to the Afghan Association of London, many small independent grocery stores and market stalls, which were traditionally run by well-established South Asian communities a decade ago, now increasingly belong to Afghans. West London’s Southall district, another South Asian hub, is one place where this is markedly so.
“Afghans are in the fruit and vegetable market because they don’t have the right qualifications to apply for better jobs. They are unfortunately unskilled, suffering for the past 42 years from war and conflict,” says Nooralhaq Nasimi, the founder of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, a charity which assists refugees in London.
Nasimi is, himself, one of the millions of Afghans who have fled the Taliban regime. He arrived in the UK in 1999, on the back of a truck in a refrigerated container.
Fresh produce stalls and street markets are a centuries-old tradition in the UK, and were once predominantly run by English costermongers from handcarts in the streets of London.
Today, they have been transformed by successive waves of immigration. Spreading away from the UK’s oldest and most prominent food markets in London and other big cities, towards more local neighbourhoods, refugees of Afghan origin have in many places replaced the traditional, working-class British traders of days past.
Of course, this heritage still exists in other parts of town – particularly the city centre. Over at Birmingham’s outdoor fruit and vegetable market in the Bullring – Birmingham’s landmark, city-centre shopping area, a 15-minute public transport ride from Alum Rock Road – traders call out in a loud, strong British pitch, “£1 a bowl!”
Filled to the top with bananas, bunches of grapes, ruby-red chillies and other brightly coloured produce, their bowls are enticing.
With a gentle smile, 60-year-old John, wearing a fleece-lined trapper hat, is neatly stacking boxes of berries.
“I have worked in this market for 35 years,” he says. “Now, during the pandemic, my sales have dropped dramatically, around 65 percent. The buying is not an issue, it’s the selling that has become more of a challenge. I was running the stall with my friend before, and now it’s just me. As we were not making enough, he left to find another job.”
Walking further down the market, the British accents of native Englishmen like John give way to South Asian pronunciations, combining with a touch of the less prominent Pashto accent.
“I am from Rawalpindi in Pakistan,” says one tall, blue-eyed trader of Pathan origin. At the stall next to him, stands a seller of Indian origin. Behind them is another, rather shy, Afghan stallholder.
Despite their essential work during the pandemic, Afghan stallholders have not received much in the way of assistance from the UK government.
“Afghans are not running the same businesses as the South Asian communities. They are running much smaller businesses,” says Nasimi. “Then, during COVID, most of them lost customers and eventually closed down. With the support of our organisation, five percent of the small businesses run by Afghan refugees in London successfully obtained financial support from the government during the pandemic.
“The Afghan community are the most excluded and isolated in the world. They face several challenges, including the language barrier, culture barrier, lack of integration into society, lack of access to mainstream services and mental health issues. Many of them don’t even know how to approach their local authorities for financial support during the pandemic,” he adds.
Alum Rock’s Afghan stallholders say they are aware of the COVID-19 financial support that is available, but no one has heard of any successful cases of claiming it around this neighbourhood and none of the stallholders Al Jazeera spoke to had yet tried. “The word of mouth is very important for the migrant communities,” says Chatham House’s Hakimi.
By this, he means that members of this community are more likely to take advice from each other than turn to the government for help. Within the community, trusted “gatekeepers” who are better versed in the UK’s benefits and welfare system will step in to provide help with applying for assistance if necessary.
However, for many the real problem when it comes to getting government assistance is the paperwork.
“Those individuals who are not working full time and don’t have a National Insurance Number (the UK personal registration number which entitles a citizen to healthcare and social benefits) or who are working but are still without sufficient paperwork to get an NI Number – they are not entitled to anything,” says Hakimi. “And so, they can’t access the UK’s coronavirus furlough scheme. Most Afghans are self-employed and we know that the furlough scheme (the UK government’s financial assistance scheme for those whose employers could not give them work during the pandemic) did not extend to self-employment in the same way.
“Some work overtime in low-paid jobs, to be able to pay their rents. They work six days a week, long hours, and earn £300 to £400 a week. In one month, that’s around £1,000 to £1,500. Renting a small flat in London these days is at least £1,100 per month. They are really suffering. Nonetheless, they’ve had to carry on.”
Back at his stall, Abdul Nafi is optimistic for his future.
“I want to do something big – maybe bring local Afghani goods to the UK – a business which allows me to earn money while relaxing at home,” he says determinedly, but with a chuckle nonetheless.