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 You are in: Analysis
In Business
Discrimination in the workplace

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online economics reporter

More than a quarter of a century after the introduction of the race relations act, significant differences between ethnic groups in the workplace are still widespread.

According to recent research, black and Asian ethnic minority workers have lower pay than their white counterparts, are more likely to be unemployed, and are less likely to be found in the higher ranks of management.

For Gurbaux Singh, the chairman of the Commission on Racial Equality, the situation needs urgent attention.

"Is it a sustainable proposition for British companies and firms to focus their recruitment only on the best white able-bodied males?

"Organisations need an increasingly diverse workforce in order to respond to their increasingly diverse marketplace."

According to the TUC, "the figures are very disappointing. There is still a big problem despite the legislation."

But if the facts are not in dispute, there is still a fierce debate on the causes - and policy consequences - of these disparities at work.

Problems persist

One of the most striking facts is the persistence of the differential between the unemployment rates among whites and members of ethnic minorities - differences which have persisted since records began 20 years ago, as the absolute level of unemployment has waxed and waned.

Earlier hopes that the next generation - the children of immigrants - would have a similar pattern of employment to whites has not been realised.

According to Prime Minister Tony Blairís Policy and Innovation Unit, which reviewed the figures this year, "the evidence does not suggest sufficient or extensive economic integration - nor does it especially point to improved levels of success by the children of immigrants."

In fact, their research points to higher unemployment levels by the children of immigrants in the 1990s than their parents.

Wage differences

There are also big differences in the average earnings received by those in work.

Black and Asian men average nearly £100 a week less than white workers.

However, there are important differences between ethnic groups, and between men and women.

There is no wage gap for Indian men, and black women have been improving their occupational status much faster than black men.

The low wages may be related to the difficulty that ethnic minority workers have in gaining promotion to higher levels of management.

A survey of Britain's 100 biggest companies by the Runnymede Trust suggested that just 1% of senior management posts were held by ethnic minorities, despite the fact that they make up 7% of the population as a whole.

The difficulties that are faced by ethnic minorities at work have led many to conclude that self-employment might be a better path.

And among Asian workers, especially from India and Pakistan, self-employment rates are substantially higher than whites, with one in four Pakistani workers now saying they are self-employed.

But self-employment only results in around 7% of all small businesses being minority-owned.

The Bank of England estimated that there are 15,000 minority owned businesses in London employing a workforce of 200,000.


There is considerable debate on why the patterns of racial prejudice in employment have persisted.

And there are certainly a number of key factors that partly explain what is happening.

Education is one of the most important - black men, in particular, have lower levels of educational achievement than those in the population as a whole.

And geography is another factor - with some ethnic minorities concentrated in areas of high unemployment, or far from public transport, or in industries (like textiles and clothing) that are rapidly shrinking.

Gender is also very important - women from black and Indian backgrounds, in particular, seem to be gaining employment more easily than many other ethnic minority groups.

What to do?

Most recent legislative attention has focused on racist crime and the reform of public institutions, leaving the issue of racism in private employment to be dealt with on an individual basis through employment tribunals.

According to the TUC, however, institutional racism among companies is still a key factor in explaining the racial divide in the job market.

BBC News Online: Race survey

Question: How many people object to working with someone from a different race?

The TUC's equality officer, Roger McKenzie, told BBC News Online that "the skills and experience of black males fails to be recognised in the workplace."

The TUC wants the government to extend the provisions of the 2001 Race Relations Act, which called for public bodies to take positive action to encourage ethnic diversity, to be extended to the private sector.

And it wants compulsory ethnic monitoring by companies of their workforces.

The main employers organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, acknowledges that there are "serious issues" but says "it is too easy to point the finger at employers when other factors are at play."

The CBI's is keen to encourage firms to take "positive action" to encourage recruitment of ethnic minorities, and is in joint discussions with the TUC.

It is concerned about "aspirations" and "perceptions" among minority groups, which it wants to influence.

But it is less keen on the use of employment tribunals to fight discrimination, saying that many are misused by people who take cases that never reach fruition.

The debate over workplace inequality has not yet been fully joined.

But when it is, it is likely that government, employers and unions will all have to look more broadly at how to tackle one of the biggest social divides in Britain.

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