Racial inequality in the labour market has persisted for decades – we all have to play a part in addressing it

Blog posts

9 Jun 2020

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson, Institute Director

The protests around the world following the killing of George Floyd two weeks ago have thrown into sharp relief the structural racism that still pervades our society.  Over decades, progress has been too slow in addressing racial inequalities, and we are seeing the impacts of this in the current crisis – with people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups more likely to die from the virus, reflecting among other things existing health inequalities, where people live and the jobs that they do. This is the social gradient in action, as Stephen Bevan wrote last month

Racial inequalities have been particularly pronounced in our labour market, over decades. BAME people are more likely to be out of work than white people, to be in low paid work and to experience poverty.  Overall, just over two thirds of BAME people are in work (68%) compared with nearly four fifths of white people (78%).  White people are more likely to be in work than any other ethnic group, and this applies for both men and women (with one exception, where Indian men are more likely to be in work than white men).  Underneath this, the employment rate gap has fallen significantly over the last two decades for men, to just 5 percentage points – but for Black men, the gap stands at 11 percentage points (with employment for Black men actually falling in recent years, while it has risen for others).  For women the employment rate gap has narrowed more slowly, and now stands at 14 percentage points (but is more than double this for women of Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent).

Once in work, BAME people are also more likely to be low paid than white people.  This in large part reflects long standing occupational segregation, which our work on under-representation in Apprenticeships shows starts before people enter the labour market and often intersects with other characteristics like gender and class.  People from minority ethnic groups are over-represented in a range of lower paying jobs (care workers, security, hospitality, customer services and taxi drivers) even as they are more likely to work in a small number of higher paying jobs like as doctors and IT professionals.  

Part of these pay differences are explained by demographics, but research by the Resolution Foundation in 2018 and by the ONS last year suggests that pay gaps are not fully explained by the jobs that people do, nor by working patterns, qualifications (where separate research suggests that BAME groups are more likely to be overqualified for their jobs), age or gender.  Pay penalties persist, and appear to do so particularly for men and for those born overseas.  And part of this ongoing inequality, undoubtedly, is a result of racial discrimination.  This has been most clearly borne out in studies using fictitious CVs to apply for jobs – most recently by Nuffield College, Oxford, who in findings last year reported that people with ethnic minority backgrounds had to submit 60% more applications than the ‘majority group’ in order to get a callback.  These “shocking levels of discrimination”, as the study put it, are unlikely to stop at recruitment, and of course are not limited to the labour market.

These issues have existed for decades, and progress in addressing them has been far too slow.  So as we think about the recovery from this crisis, the events of the last two weeks have reiterated that it has never been more pressing that we work to address this.  A great place to start is the ‘Colour of Money’ report by the Runnymede Trust last month, which has a range of specific proposals on how policy and practice needs to change in the recovery.  Three points however stand out for me, that:

  • We need better targeted interventions to address specific barriers or discrimination that BAME people face;
  • We should be much more rigorous in ensuring that ‘universal’ policies that are meant to address disadvantage actually do so for BAME groups; and
  • There needs to be more representation of BAME voices and perspectives. 

For us at IES, in our work on employment, HR and wider public policy like education and skills, we are acutely aware that we need to be play our part in driving this change, and that we can do a lot more.

So on better targeted measures to address inequalities in pay and participation, we need to build on our work on ethnicity pay reporting, tackling pay gaps and inclusive recruitment to better support employers and employer bodies to take action.  However also, where we identify specific disadvantages for BAME groups – as we did in research on youth employment last year – we need to challenge ourselves on whether targeted measures are needed, and what form those should take.  In employment services in particular, it has been years – well over a decade – since there has been national focus on targeted interventions for people from BAME groups.

On ‘universal’ policies, we need to ensure that when we are researching and evaluating interventions, as well as just reporting on differences for BAME groups, we also try to explore why and how these differences emerge.  As researchers, we need to help answer the question whether universal policies are helping to address racial inequalities.  More than this though, we also need to ensure that as we advocate or make proposals for future policy coming out of this crisis, we are exploring how this will work to narrow the gaps in employment and in pay that many BAME people face.

Finally, on ensuring that there is clear representation and voice for BAME people, we need to ensure that we are listening to BAME voices in participatory research and that we are engaging and partnering with BAME groups.  However this goes for us as in Institute and as an employer too.  We operate in a city, Brighton and Hove, which like many University cities has a large, young and diverse minority ethnic community; but in a profession, social research, which has a persistent problem with ethnic diversity.  So while we have taken some steps over the years to try to improve access for under-represented and disadvantaged groups, we need to review our practice as well as our policies in relation to race and ethnicity, as there is clearly much more that we should do.  These last two weeks have reaffirmed that for us as an employer, as well as for us as researchers and practitioners, we can and must do better.

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