During lockdown, Ruhela Begum has been making shoes: mules with a fur trim, sandals with satin straps, house shoes made of reclaimed leather. Not for herself, but for customers of Juta Shoes, a social enterprise that supports women into work in east London.
Before the pandemic, she had begun to lead workshops that Juta organised for community members and for corporate away days. These took place at St Margaret’s House, a charity-run community space in Bethnal Green. The area is in the shadow of the City of London, but more than half of local children grow up in poverty.
Running these sessions changed her life. For years, Begum had stayed at home with her children. She didn’t know much of London and felt scared to use the train. “But I can go places now,” she says. “I went to the City a couple of times and if I need help, I can ask people.”
When lockdown happened, Begum continued making shoes at home on her sewing machine. But the workshop space, where women were able to meet people and gain confidence, had to close. Now lockdown is easing, Juta Shoes is hoping to restart in an empty council building.
Despite the pandemic, social enterprises are still struggling to secure space in central London. “Rent is a huge issue,” says Sabeha Miah, Juta’s co-founder. “It immediately stops any growth mindset because you have to worry about how you can afford it. If you take a business loan from the government you have to worry not only about rent but about paying off a huge loan.”
Creating opportunities for women to do work where they felt valued was the founding principle of Juta Shoes, says Miah. She began the social enterprise with Joanna Hamer after working at St Hilda’s East, a local charity. There, Miah was working with Bangladeshi women who all had the same story: they were on the margins of society, finding it hard to get into work or to settle in a job because of caring responsibilities. “It was really frustrating,” she remembers. “They were going to the jobcentre and being told: ‘Be a cleaner, work from 11 at night until 3 in the morning, you won’t have to speak to anyone and no one will see you.’”
Miah was doing craft work with the same women and knew they were highly skilled: “I thought, we live in a world with all this creativity and yet we haven’t found a way for them to have meaningful, well-paid work that fits in with their lives.”
A 2020 study by the TUC showed that one in eight women from a black or minority ethnic background are employed in insecure work such as cleaning and care, compared with one in 16 white women. They experience lower rates of pay, have fewer employment rights and have been at greater risk of exposure to Covid-19.
Juta Shoes started at St Hilda’s in 2016 and then moved to a community space run by St Margaret’s House, although that location ran out of room earlier this year.
Tati, a canteen founded to help women formalise their culinary skills and seek employment in the hospitality sector, is also struggling to find a permanent workplace.
Maher Anjum started Tati after reports in 2016 appeared to show that British Bangladeshi women were the most economically inactive group in the UK. The reports said these women had few role models and that their English was too poor for work.
But Anjum knew the reality was different. “There was this huge label on them as economically inactive, when every day we were meeting women who were economically active, they did have a story to tell, but for some reason they weren’t being counted as part of the system.”
In 2019, Anjum started holding workshops with women in east London to test recipes. Later that year, 16 women signed up for courses in cookery, catering and food safety. They talked about reimagining Brick Lane — at one point home to 50 Bangladeshi restaurants, all managed by men — with authentic Bengali dishes such as kitchuri, a rice and lentil dish that inspired kedgeree. “We wanted to present the real Bangladeshi people,” Anjum says. “That meant people who were not visible: women.”
The women raised more than £13,000 through crowdfunding, but after two years and lockdowns, Anjum has been unable to secure the investment to open a bricks and mortar canteen. “We are still being told we don’t have enough experience in the sector to be investment-ready,” Anjum says. “One wonders if it’s to do with being a female-led organisation.”
Anjum and Miah have joined the East End Trades Guild, an alliance of 350 small, independent businesses, social enterprises and self-employed people in east London, to petition London mayor Sadiq Khan for affordable space. In May, they met Khan to discuss the possibility of a community land trust, a piece of land that could be owned by the community in perpetuity with rent fixed at an affordable level.
“When people don’t have to spend so much on rent, they can spend more on local employment and living wages,” says Krissie Nicolson, co-founder of the guild. “Unless we make workspace accessible, it will deepen inequality in an area already in crisis.”
In the meantime, Anjum has secured subsidised space for a craft workshop in a mixed-use scheme developed by Trilogy, an investment and property management firm, at East India Dock, near Canary Wharf. Laurence Jones, Trilogy’s head of asset management, says: “Why would we give that space away? Candidly, in commercial terms, for it to sit there empty costs money. So why not offer it to an organisation that can make the most of it? It has value to them, and it strengthens our bond with the community.”
Anjum continues to look for a kitchen for Tati. She sees the potential for local women to fill post-pandemic vacancies in the hospitality industry. “They’re trained,” she says. “They just need a chance.”