Ethnic Disadvantage Has Not Disappeared from the Labour Market

LUBS3001 Gender and Equality at Work in Comparative Perspective Ethnic disadvantage has not disappeared from the labour market despite legislation. What theoretical explanations have been put forward to explain why people from ethnic and racial minorities experience discrimination? Which do you consider to be the most helpful in explaining disadvantage in the labour market? Ethnic and racial discrimination in the workplace is a controversial topic, which has been researched and assessed thoroughly over the past years.
Although the terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ are often talked about in union, they have different meanings and stem from different social contexts. Race is an ideology with a particular concept in mind, and can be understood in various social and historical contexts, for example when slavery was prevalent and race was an important factor for distinguishing groups in society. Race can also refer to particular physical features someone may have, for example someone’s skin colour.
Ethnicity on the other hand, relates more to groups of people who share significant, common beliefs that are part of their embedded culture, and usually passed down through their heritage. Race and ethnicity are key issues in the workplace because evidence shows that when analysing different measures of achievement in the workplace, such as unemployment rates, earnings and progression into higher levels of work, ethnic minorities are disadvantaged (Cabinet Office), and although the magnitude of these disadvantages are generally decreasing over time, it is still an un-resolved issue affecting millions of people every year.

Although many theoretical explanations have been proposed regarding this ‘glass ceiling’ theory (The economist, 2009) in the workplace, it is important to recognise that many of these theories are linked, and therefore there is no one prevailing answer to resolve the issue.
During this essay I will discuss the Underclass theories, with reference to Murray (1989) and Wilson, (1987) theories of discrimination and racism focusing on Macpherson’s concept of institutional racism (1999), and theories of ethnic diversity in relation to human and social capital, concluding with which theories I deem to be the most explanatory in reference to this topic.
Evidence of ethnic disadvantage in the labour market is plentiful, with statistics covering multiple areas of the subject. In the TUC report of Youth, Unemployment and Ethnicity (2012) it shows that the unemployment rate for White people (male and females) is 20%, for Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi the figure increases to 29%, and for Black/African Caribbean the figure is more than twice than that for Whites, at 45%.
However, when analysing this research it is important to recognise that these employment rates may be particularly high due to the economic recession around this time affecting the labour market, but the variation in figures amongst the groups is still apparent. Similarly, this research cannot be fully analysed as different ethnic groups have been grouped together, and between these ethnicities there are substantial variations with regards to employment.
An example of this arises from statistics from the Labour Force Survey (1999), which show that the unemployment rate for Indians is closer to that of Whites than it is to Bangladeshis. In the Cabinet Office report of Ethnic minorities in the Labour market (2003), information states that ‘while ethnic minorities are disadvantaged on average, the labour market successes of the Indians and Chinese show that the old picture of White success and ethnic minority under-performance is now out of date’.
Although this is extremely positive progress for Indians and Chinese, there is still much more to be done to further bridge the gap between other ethnic groups in the labour market. Statistics from the Labour Force Survey (1999) show White people had an unemployment rate of just 6%, Indians 8%, Pakistanis 16%, Black Africans 17%, and Bangladeshis 24%. It is evident that Bangladeshis have the highest rate of unemployment out of these ethnic groups, and one reason for this could be due to an English language barrier.
If Bangladeshi parents are not fluent in English, then not only will it be considerably harder for them to find a job, but also this disadvantage will be passed down to their children when they attend school, therefore this particular weakness is transmitted over generations, and may be one explanation for the on-going trend of high unemployment levels. Statistics also show that different ethnic groups are more susceptible to be employed in particular areas of work.
Rex and Tomlinson (1979) found that in Birmingham, ‘immigrants and employed predominantly in less attractive industries and in less rewarding jobs’, (Pilkington, 2003, p61) and evidence for this can be found in the National report by Green, Owen and Wilson (2005). Research from this report shows that in the UK on average, around 8% of all jobs are filled by ethnic minority employees, yet there are various different structural positions in the labour market.
Ethnic minorities are under-represented in occupations such as managers and administration, with only 12. 7% occupying these types of jobs, compared to 15. 5% for Whites. Furthermore, ethnic minorities are over-represented in occupations such as sales, at a figure of 10. 5%, compared to 7. 4% for whites. As previously mentioned, one of the main reasons employees from ethnic minorities may work in lower skilled jobs could be due to insufficient language skills.
In the National report it states that in London, where 28. 8% of the population are from ethnic minorities (Ethnic minorities, Information Centre Guide 2003), there are opportunities for people to learn English via English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provisions, however local studies in the area show this opportunity needs to be made even more accessible and on a wider scale for a positive impact to be made (Africa Educational Trust 2002).
The Underclass thesis was first developed in the United States and later gained awareness in Britain due to an American journalist, Auletta in 1982. Auletta claimed that the underclass had ‘four distinct categories’, these comprising of the ‘passive poor’, ‘hostile street criminals’, ‘hustlers’ and ‘the traumatised drunks…and released mental patients’ (Pilkington, 2003, p52). Morris (1994) stated ‘Auletta’s categorisation of them as dependent and deviant carries an implicit moral judgment’.
Although there are various definitions of the underclass, the majority of them share similar characteristics, these being unemployed by choice, dependent on welfare benefits, social exclusion, and links to crime and delinquency. It could be seen that by labelling such a diverse group as ‘the underclass’, whilst assuming they all possess these negative qualities would ultimately be extremely de-motivating, and may even result in a self-fulfilling prophecy (David Straker 2002-2012) If so, this may result in members of the underclass feeling hard work is not expected of them, resulting in little or o effort to strive for employment and integrate with society. The concept of the underclass is linked to social divisions based on gender and class, as well as race, making it a widespread topic with significance to various groups in society. Therefore, the explanations put forward for this thesis are fundamentally opposing. Conservative writers of the underclass place specific emphasis on cultural factors, such as the surrounding environment a person has grown up in, resulting in deviant values and behaviour.
On the other hand, liberal writers maintain that structural factors such as the way our society functions, result in an underclass forming due to insufficient opportunities and on-going racism. Two of the most influential accounts of the underclass that have been provided derive from Charles Murray (1984) and Wilson (1987). Murray believed a Black underclass developed in the late 1960s due to the ‘culture of the ghetto’. He claimed this shared culture amongst the Black community created lack of education and stunted employment opportunities. Evidence of this theory can be seen in the U. S.
National Canter for Health Statistics (1970s), whereby statistics report more than 50% of black babies were conceived out of wedlock, an increase of more than 33% in the 1950s (The Atlantic, 1986). Murray states that these changes took place during economic expansion; therefore the reasoning for these statistics is the existence and availability of welfare benefits. Murray believed that whilst state benefits were available, there was no incentive for women to go to work, meaning when they had children these values of state dependency would be passed on and it would become the norm to be unemployed.
One example of a state benefit for women was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (Social Welfare History, 1988) which provided single mothers with financial security, acting as a disincentive for both mothers and fathers, as it took away the pressure of having to provide for the family. Murray said ‘because poor, uneducated single teenaged mothers are in a bad position to raise children’ poverty and deviant values are transferred from parents to children, with the end result being a general lack of motivation and contribution to the labour force (Murray 1984).
There has been considerable amount of criticism for Murray’s theory and it was generally rejected by most sociologists. One critic of the theory is Devine (1997) who argued ‘the value of AFDC benefits declined in the 1970s while the number of single parents were growing’. This would suggest there is a further underlying issue, other than welfare benefits, for the explanation of growth of unemployed single parent mothers.
Morris (1994) also disputed that ‘young employed are one group in American society who have no claim to state support as of right’. Again, this would suggest that dependency on state benefits is not the main cause for unemployment amongst young people. Wilson criticised Murray’s theory by saying it ignored racial discrimination and did not account for deindustrialising, whereby there was a change from a goods-producing economy to a service-producing economy meaning people who did not possess the required skills were out of work.
Wilson went on to provide a structural theory of the underclass, this being the major liberal response to Murray’s explanation. Although Wilson also acknowledged an urban underclass and agreed that their ‘behaviour contrasts sharply with that of mainstream America’ (Wilson 1987), he argued that it was because of the unfair structures of society and existing inequalities that caused lack of education and unemployment. Wilson also acknowledged that unemployment was linked to discrimination and stemmed as a result of economic changes.
Racial discrimination in the rural South encouraged migration to inner cities in the North, however the situation was not aided as service work replaced the manufacturing industry, requiring skills that the majority of Black and Hipic citizens had not acquired. Townsend (1991) agrees with Wilson’s structural theory, and concluded from his major study, Poverty in the UK (1979) that the underclass emerged due to government policies in the areas of trade unions, industry and taxation. Therefore it was due to the way that society was structured and designed which caused an underclass of unemployed, low-paid or prematurely retired workers.
Although sociologists deemed Wilson’s theory as more credible that Murray’s, there is still substantial criticism on the matter. Fainstein (1992) argues that Wilson fails to recognise ‘the continuing significance of race’ which, for Black people, causes ‘segmentation into low wage employment’ (Pilkington, 2003, p55). Furthermore, Miles (1982) criticises both theories by stating that migrants have not developed a whole underclass they are just simply a ‘fraction’ of society (Sociology Central 2010).
It would appear than in general the underclass theory is not the most valid explanation for inequality in the labour force as there is a lack of empirical evidence with regard to the cultural theory, and both the cultural and structural theories generalise all members of ethnic groups together, when in fact statistics vary hugely amongst individuals within these groups. Another major theory used to explain the position of ethnic minorities in the workforce is ‘institutional racism’, also referring to direct and indirect discrimination.
Institutional discrimination is defined by Macpherson (1999) as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’ (Pilkington, 2003, p85). Macpherson launched a police investigation into the murder of a Black teenager by five White youths, and through this inquiry concluded that all major British organisations are characterised by some form of institutional racism (Parliament UK, 2009).
For Macpherson, this concept did not mean that all policies of institutions were intentionally racist; rather it arises through ‘social and cultural processes’ (Parekh 2000). The fact that institutional racism is said to stem from the occupational culture of the organisation is a major concern, as the culture of a company is usually embedded within the employees who share similar values and beliefs, and they tend to remain consistent over time.
Although the Macpherson report has created new awareness regarding institutional racism (Solomas 1999), and remains to be a valid explanation for ethnic minority disadvantage in the labour market, it has also been critiqued for various reasons. One of the main critiques is that the concept is too ambiguous, with Pilkington (2001) referring to it as a ‘blunderbuss concept’. This is because the concept does not specifically refer to the different components within institutional racism.
The term ‘institutional racism’ is rather broad, as it may contain elements of individual discriminatory behaviour and also direct intentional discrimination. Regardless of anti-discrimination legislation, for example The Race Relations Act (1965) intentional discrimination can still be found in some areas of the present labour force. Evidence of this type of discrimination can be seen through discrimination testing, whereby testers from different ethnic backgrounds both apply for the same job at the same time, using identical application forms.
A study performed by Modood et al (1997) found one in five ethnic minority employees felt they had experienced racial discrimination, in the form of being refused a job due to racial or religious reasons, yet only one in twenty white employees felt they had every experienced any form of discrimination. This evidence may suggest that employees who have been faced with discrimination could be discouraged from future job opportunities.
Ethnic minority groups may also be faced with indirect discrimination, whereby an organisation unintentionally discriminates against certain groups, for example an up-market clothing store may only employ people who fit certain appearance criteria. Combined, these various forms of discrimination in the labour force would be extremely detrimental to ethnic minority groups and appear to be one of the major contributors to patterns of employment amongst ethnic groups.
Ethnic diversity and patterns of discrimination amongst ethnic minority groups can also, to an extent, be explained by patterns of inequality. Social capital can be seen as an important aspect of society, which may provide some explanation for the diversity amongst ethnic groups. Putnam (1995) defines social capital as ‘features of social life –networks, norms, and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives’. Social policy is linked to all members of a community and the social networks, and social norms or values within our society.
The fact that social policy is composed of shared customs within a society, would suggest that members of minority ethnic groups may not be part of this concept, as they are likely to have different values as their cultures and backgrounds will vary. This could result in ethnic minority groups feeling segregated from the local community, especially if they have not lived there for very long, and therefore have not yet integrated with neighbours or fellow citizens.
The terms ‘social capital’ and more specifically, ‘bonding social capital’, are significant when discussing the labour force as they refer to networking with people and communicating through shared objectives. Nowadays, with high levels of competitiveness in the work force, it is extremely advantageous to have general networking links into different areas of the labour market, and often the phrase ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ is used. Employers will often create a workforce of people that they can trust, or at least someone who has come with a trust-worthy reference, perhaps suggested by a colleague.
Therefore, if ethnic minority members do not share this same sense of social capital and appear to have few or no network connections, it will be harder for them to succeed in the labour force and ultimately could it have a significant effect on their employment status. This theory of social capital can also be linked to why less ethnic minority graduates are taken on by large firms after university, than Whites. Statistics provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency from 2007-08 showed 66% of Whites found full-time or part-time employment within one year of graduation compared to 56. % for minority ethnic groups. Although the figure is not alarmingly higher, one reason for the difference could be due to social capital and networking advantages. Work experience completed throughout university years can often be acquired using contacts, and the majority of employees will consider the quality and amount of work experience endured before employing a graduate. Although this essay is primarily focused on ethnicity, it is also important to consider religion as a contributory factor for patterns of inequality in the labour force.
Religion can often be a trigger for discriminatory behaviour, for example since the 9/11 terrorist attacks the term ‘Islamophobia’ was used more widely, this referring to fear of Muslims. Many types of religion are expressed using distinctive types of clothing, such as a turban, making it apparent to others what religion someone may be, which could lead to discrimination. Lindley (2002) compared employment and earnings across ethnic groups within five religious groups, and compared these results with that of Whites.
Evidence was provided to show Muslims were substantially disadvantaged compared to other ethnic minorities, however other factors such as individual attitudes and levels of motivation may have also contributed to these statistics. Religion can also be linked to the previously mentioned topic of social capital, as members of a particular faith may choose to socialise only with people who share their same beliefs and values, which would affectively limit opportunities of bridging social capital in mainstream society.
To conclude, with the aid of various legislation and trade unions, the positioning of ethnic minorities in the labour market has advanced over the past forty years. However, regardless of this improvement, discrimination in the workforce and ethnic penalties are still prominent. From examining theoretical explanations for the disadvantage of ethnic minorities in the labour force, it would seem that the answer lies within a number of different causes.
Although some of the theories seem more plausible explanations than others, for example theories that recognise racial disadvantage along with the concept of ethnic diversity are more accepted than that of the underclass thesis, it is still important to acknowledge all of the theories, as individually they all provide possible explanations. There is not one possible reason for ethnic and racial disadvantage, more than it is due to a combination of factors such as discrimination in the workplace, economic restructuring overtime, and race, religion and ethnicity.
Further aspects are also relevant to consider, such as historic patterns of migration and also class and gender. Various elements of these theories will be more applicable depending on the group in question, and it is also essential to recognise that within different ethnic groups, statistics vary considerably making it un-reliable to treat groups as one whole instead of addressing the individuals within. Bibliography Books BRADLEY, H. , HEALY, G. , FORSON, C and KAUL, P. 2007 Equal Opportunities Commission. Manchester. BRADLEY, H. , HEALY, G. , 2008 Ethnicity and Gender at Work.
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