Tamils in low status work in Norway: Creating stigma and opportunities?

Anne Sigfrid Grønseth

Anne Sigfrid Grønseth

Associate Professor,
University College of Lillehammer
Email: anne.gronseth@hil.no


This paper departs from a follow-up study among Tamils who have moved from the northernmost arctic coast of Norway to the capitol of Oslo. The investigation was focused on issues concerning Tamil refugees’ experiences of illness and well-being (Grønseth 2010, 2006 and 2001). After more than ten years of contact with Tamil refugees, including one year of intensive fieldwork (1999-2000) among Tamils who had settled in Arctic Harbor, one of the small fishing villages of Finnmark county, I have re-engaged with the Tamils now living in Oslo. In the period August-December 2007 I did frequent and short-term field visits to Tamils in Oslo. My focus for the follow-up research was centred on how the Tamils of Arctic Harbor experienced the move to Oslo, and how they perceive it to effect their sense of illness and well-being.

A crucial dimension of Tamils sense of illness and well-being is related to the work they do. Taking a perspective of embodiment and being-in-the-world (Csordas 1994; Merleau-Ponty 1962 [1945]; Jackson 1998), I have argued how health and identity are closely linked together. Recognising how bodily perceptions and practices are crucial for experiences of illness, well-being and identity, the work individuals do clearly emerges as a vital dimension. I suggest that exploring how migrant individuals and groups access, manage and perceive their everyday work give insights in how they perceive, negotiate and handle issues of identity, security and morality.

In what follows I consider how work is vital for both social solidarity and the development of self and group identities. Then I present a case that illustrates how Tamils experience work as exploitive and stigmatising (Grønseth 2010), but also as something that supplies a modicum of security and opportunity for the lives of individuals and for group projects. Lastly, I offer an analysis that sees Tamil refugees as being categorised into a larger new possible underclass whose characteristic feature is treatment as ‘flawed consumers’. I argue that Tamils are not seen as flawed consumers as a consequence of poverty or non-participation in the labour-marked. Rather, it results from their being admitted (almost) exclusively into low status “dirty work” and from their displaying of a distinct pattern of consumption and set of leisure activities.

Tamil refugees in the Norwegian welfare state: work, consumption and identity

A crucial feature of the Norwegian welfare state is its ongoing contribution to international peace negotiations (especially relating to the Israel-Palestine and Sri-Lanka conflicts) and its support of democracy and human rights worldwide. The Norwegian debate on immigration and policy towards refugees, however, does not reflect such ideals. When liberal opponents proclaim rhetorically in public debates that ‘migrants do the work that Norwegians find themselves too good to do’, they are describing an actual social tendency towards generating a new underclass (Wikan 1995). It has been documented that ‘immigrants’ in Norway experience difficulties in having the educational and occupational competence they have acquired in other countries recognised, as well as in obtaining jobs even when they have been educated in Norway (Rogstad 2000). Furthermore, as is the case in other European countries, non-western immigrants have a lower standard of living than the majority population (Djuve and Hagen 1995, Blom 1998).

Refugees and migrants, such as the Tamils, who engage in education and waged employment, do not often enjoy social recognition in the social arenas where Norwegians are confirmed as social persons. Many, therefore withdraw to their own social arenas, separate from the Norwegian ones. This separatist tendency is also apparent in the Tamils’ organisation of their own soccer teams and leagues, aerobics for women, yoga courses, computer courses, etc. Instead of taking part in the same activities within Norwegian contexts, the Tamils establish their own facilities where they can experience themselves as persons within the wider Tamil social and religious community.

While recognising a shift from a traditional and stable link between work and self-identity (Bauman 1995, Bauman 2005) - in the sense that “my father is a carpenter and I am a carpenter” and “I am a carpenter and will stay a carpenter” - to a more fluid, elusive and flexible relation between work and self-identity - in the sense that work provides possibilities for various identities based on consumption of goods and practice of leisure activities - I propose, nonetheless, that certain kinds of jobs hold distinct social esteem and status which challenge self and group identity. Moreover, I suggest, when the relation between work and identity is more fluid and elusive the link between work and self-identity becomes more precarious for one’s senses of selfhood and well-being. When work becomes less socially pre-ascribed and fixed, but rather an individual choice (Bauman 2005), often shifting throughout the lifecourse, work shifts from being a means of constituting a socially ascribed identity, to one employed in the constitution of a self-made identity. From such a perspective, engaging in certain kinds of work serves as a direct marker of identity, or it can present opportunities to engage in consumption and leisure activities that mark identity. Either way, work becomes crucial for experiences of human worthiness, inclusion, belonging and security. The challenges of acquiring, qualifying and choosing a job, and thus a self-identity, are perceived, obtained, handled and negotiated in distinct ways by differently socially positioned groups and individuals.

Regarding the case of Tamils, and non-western refugees and migrants in general, I suggest that being Tamil and commonly working in low status jobs, holds some specific features which Tamils generally perceive as humiliating, stigmatising and as a great challenge to self-identity. These are features that I suggest they share with many groups and individuals often categorised as ‘underclass’ (Myrdal 1963) and ‘flawed consumers’ (Bauman 2005). In the context of Tamil refugees living in Norway, I will in this paper highlight how such perspectives can throw light on challenges facing Tamils in their experiencing and constituting of group and individual self identities.

Tamils in Norway, as a group, experience marginality from admission into higher status work, often in spite of them possessing relevant education, competence and experience. Tamils commonly work as cleaning assistants in schools, banks and shops, as dishwashers in restaurants and cafeterias, as cashiers in grocery shops, as unprofessional nursing assistants in homes for the elderly and in hospitals, as pizza deliverers and as taxi chauffers. Being employed in these kinds of work, the Tamils experience inclusion and acceptance in only the work that Norwegians “do not want to do”, or what is often termed among both Norwegians and Tamils alike as “dirty work” (Grønseth 2011). Holding the position of doing the “dirty work” I suggest in this context to be analogous to populating a new and possible underclass. Further, I propose the concept of underclass not only related to the abilityto consume, but also diverse features and patterns of consumption from those which are crucial for identity and inclusion/exclusion in the current Norwegian welfare state.

In the next section I present an illustrative case. It concerns a man who experiences challenges in work and identity that affect his experience of self identity and life project as an individual and as part of the Tamil community. The case is constructed to ensure anonymity and any recognition of a specific person is only coincidental.

Case: Kumar’s struggle for self-identity

Back home in Sri Lanka Kumar worked as a mechanic at his father’s engineering workshop in his village in Jaffna. He had started a formal education as engineer, but had had to stop due to the war and a need to earn money for his family. In response to the increasing risk to Kumar’s safety and well-being wrought by civil war in Sri Lanka, his parents decided to raise money for his escape. They hoped that he would make it to a safe place, like Norway, and support the family from over there. While being held at the asylum-seeker centre waiting for the decision on his application, Kumar was given the opportunity to earn good money if he was willing to live in the far north of Norway and work in the fishing industry. When he was finally granted residency on humanitarian grounds he moved to Arctic Harbor and started to work as a cutter, alongside many other Tamils. He soon learnt that being a cutter he did the work the Norwegians did not want to do. Norwegians described it as work for “those who can do no better”. At the fish plant the Tamils were made into scapegoats. As Kumar said:

“They always blame us, the cutters. And who are the cutters? That is us, the Tamils. They say we cheat on the weight, we steel fish from the others, we blame others for own wrongs, we do not cut the fish clean, and we are too slow. We are the scapegoats. Even when we take courses in fishery production and apply for other work in the fish plant we are rejected. I feel like dirt. They (the local Norwegians) do not like our black skin. They say we smell bad. They can smile and be nice, but when you turn your back their eyes follow you to see if you steel anything. I never trust white people.”  

During various visits to Kumar’s house he described to me how he felt very alone, insecure and vulnerable. He felt overwhelmed by responsibilities and uncertainty about how to navigate and negotiate himself within a radically new setting and social context. Working as a cutter made him “feel like dirt”.

However, the job as cutter gave Kumar the possibility to build a new platform and carve out a life-project of his own. During the10 years he lived in Arctic Harbor Kumar had provided money for his parents who were still in Sri Lanka, and he repaid his family’s debt. He had financed the dowry for one of his sisters’. He had managed to marry a young Tamil woman, applied for family re-unification and financed the air-ticket for Malar to come to Norway. When she arrived Malar joined the other Tamils along the cutting line at the fish plant. One year later they received their first son. By the time they moved to Oslo they had already two sons.

When I met Kumar and his family again they had lived in Oslo for about four years. They lived in a nice flat in the outskirts of Oslo. His home was, as also in Arctic Harbor, furnished and decorated with things that reminded them of their Tamil origin. The food served was made with appropriate ingredients and cooked in typical Tamil ways using typical Tamil kitchen utensils. The family listened to Tamil music, watched Tamil television programmes broadcast from Paris, and Tamil Video/DVD movies and documentaries. Their sons went to the Tamil Saturday school to enhance their aptitudes in Tamil language, culture and religion. His wife went to Tamil organised classes in aerobics and yoga for women.

Kumar said he had hoped for a job at an engineering workshop, but had been rejected for all the jobs he had applied for. He had done a few courses to update his qualifications, but it did not help. At the time I met him he had given up any idea of getting a better job. Kumar said he came to a point when he did not want to put himself through the humiliation of being rejected on the grounds of his status as “immigrant” and “black”. Kumar worked as a cleaning assistant at a school in the early mornings and delivered pizza in the evenings. Even though he was not able to get a kind of job he felt qualified to do and suited to, he had managed to establish himself and his small family in Oslo. Living in Oslo he had hopes for a better future. Kumar said:

“I still do the dirty work. I cannot hope for any better for myself. What is important is not me, but my family and my people. I work for my people. I send money to my family back home and I contribute to the Tamil organisation. I’m involved in planning of school and education projects for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. I engage in meetings and take on administrative tasks. Sometimes we have meetings with Norwegian institutions to discuss our ideas. The sense of helping my people makes me feel better. I feel I am something more and other than a dirty worker. I have made a life for me and my family and I contribute to the Tamil community – even to Norway. When I go to work and feel the dirt, I can shrug my shoulders and raise my head. Engaging in the Tamil organisations gives opportunities to be involved with my fellow Tamils in new ways - and sometimes with Norwegians. I feel it attaches me to my people and my self. It is strange, because it is all new for me. Sometimes I get very confused. But it feels like a good way to be a Tamil when I live in Norway.” 

Work as stigma, work as opportunity

The case story illustrates how Tamils experience work as a space that makes people distinct from each other. Certain kinds of jobs are meant for immigrants and refugees such as the Tamils. Tamils experience being stigmatized as a group that is not allowed access to forms of employment other than low status jobs. They are not welcome and (as a rule) not allowed entry to other occupations. The only work available in Arctic Harbor was along the cutting-line. The Tamils were offered the job(s) in Arctic Harbor that placed them in the lowest social position locally, jobs that in local parlance are described as suited only for people “who can do no better.” They were lumped together with other groups and categories which are seen to not “fit in” to what forms the ordered and meaningful totality of the local community and the Norwegian welfare state. In line with Bauman’s outlining of the underclass, they are conceived and treated as “ugly yet greedy weeds” (2007:32) with no (or little) ability to contribute to society. The case story also, of course, highlights a paradox within Norwegian society and in the fishing villages particularly, for an official statement that guides them is that ‘Without the Tamils, our community would cease to exist’ 1. Indeed, this situation might well be seen to pertain to Norwegian society at large. Without immigrants and refugees who should do the “dirty work” required to keep everyday life for the rest us (well-off natives) running?

The case of Kumar reflects a general experience among Tamils in Arctic Harbor of being stigmatized and lumped together with a wide range of other socially marginalized and poor people who are attributed a variety of unwanted behaviors and features of the ‘underworld’ - murky, musty and enveloped in a formless darkness (Bauman 2007:31). The existence of distinct categories such as poor people, drop-outs from school, single mothers on welfare, the homeless, drug-users, illegal immigrants, refugees and criminals does not in itself prove the existence of an underclass. Collapsing them (and numerous possible others) into one unity is a value-laden choice and decision, not a description. Any group that seems useless, as a nuisance and trouble for the established order can fall into the underclass. Despite Tamils and many immigrants unquestionable contribution through “doing the dirty work”, they are conceived as being “allowed to do so”, rather than being needed to do so, by both need and the Norwegian welfare state’s inclusive and humanitarian policy that enables its fulfillment Again, it appears paradoxical in that Norway currently depends on its migrant labor force to perform many of its crucial functions and tasks.

Tamils in Arctic Harbor, such as Kumar, commonly had hopes that by moving to Oslo they would access a broader range of jobs, a better life and sense of well-being. Following the Tamils from Arctic Harbor to their new lives in Oslo, it seems that the Tamils experience a similar kind of work related stigma. They still experience having to hold low status jobs, albeit of a greater variety. However, in Oslo they see an opportunity to engage in other activities beyond work. They find that work and money can be used not only to survive – providing the means for the purchase of food, clothes, housing and such like -, but also as a means to open other kinds of engagement and consumption that give them opportunities for self and group identification that foster well-being and social security. In a similar manner to how many Norwegians use work and the income it generates to compose individually crafted identities through patterns of consumption and leisure activity, Tamils experienced how waged work often provides possibilities to engage in activities that can make individual life and group projects.

In such a perspective the work one does as such is less crucial for self-identity. Rather, wage-work takes significance from supplying needed money, not for survival only, but for consumption and activities in leisure time. However, Tamil refugees tend to not confirm with consumption patterns that include them as a group or as an individuals into the Norwegian welfare state. The Tamils generally use money to support family back home and consume particular Tamil goods and commodities like video, music, foods and clothing. Moreover, they use money on organizing networks and projects associated with Tamil identity. In the new context of living in exile in Norway, such networks and projects, I suggest are not as much motivated and generated as part of traditional cast and kinship principles, but by individual (political) commitment to activities related to being Tamil.  As Kumar stated he has resigned on his wish to hold a job that he feels relates to his training and identity. Holding a job is seen more as a mean to contribute to his Tamil people. In this perspective wage work appears as a mean for constructing individual identity and life projects for Tamils, and I would add as well as Norwegians.

Concluding remarks: A turning point in politics of  identity?

The question of whether facing the stigma and challenges related to work and patterns of consumption leads to continuous (and possibly increased) segregation, or whether they create avenues for inclusion and mutuality, is intimately related to broader questions of morality and the nature of solidarity between social and cultural groups. I suggest that if Tamils continue to appear as flawed consumers associated with a useless underclass, the Norwegian welfare state is runs the risk of fostering a Tamil identity and community fundamentalisms. I suggest that the case of Kumar illustrates how Tamils at this moment in time can be seen to be at the verge of following either of two possible paths. If Kumar continues to feel that his investment in education and work only grants access to “useless dirty work”, and his engagement in Tamil organized activities and consumption is not recognized as in any way useful and appreciated by the Norwegian welfare state, he may turn to a fundamentalist approach to Tamil identity. If, conversely, Kumar experiences that Tamils are allowed participation in all aspects of the education and the labor market, and that Tamil patterns of consumption and leisure activity are recognized as worthy and mutual, he may gain a sense of being part of Norway and contribute to what it is to be a Norwegian. Thus, hopefully, to minimize the risk of a growing fundamentalism among many Tamil refugees, and, I would add, other refugee and immigrant groups, I would suggest a policy that encourages the Norwegian welfare state to include Tamils and non-western immigrant groups in the education and labor market at large, and to recognize a broader range of consumption and leisure activity patterns as constitutive of what it is to be Norwegian. Only continuous empirical research can tell us what course refugee and immigrant identity will take and how they are featured in the near coming future.


1.Verdens Gang, 16.10.1996.



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