Iqbal Wahhab (pictured), chair of the Ethnic Minority Advisory Group, told OBV Blog that the recession was having a disproportionate impact on Black communities, and this underlined his concerns about the need for initiatives to tackle the ethnic minority “employment gap.”
Last week Wahhab threatened to resign from the taskforce claiming that regular access to ministers had failed to yield results. Speaking this morning, he reaffirmed his intention to resign in five weeks time unless the government came up with practical ways of addressing this problem.
Studies undertaken before the current economic downturn show a 16 percent gap between white and ethnic minority employment rates, a statistic that has barely changed throughout Labour’s period in office.
60% of ethnic minorities of working age are in employment, compared to 76% of their white counterparts.
But now, with the Trades Union Congress predicting that unemployed will reach four million, and the right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange claiming that the numbers of jobless will reach a staggering six million, Wahhab said the need to tackle unequal outcomes was more urgent than ever.
During the last recession, ethnic minority unemployment rose three times as fast as white unemployment between 1989 and 1995, according to a Labour Force Survey.
Wahhab said: ‘The latest figures I’ve seen show a sharp rise in ethnic minority employment. The fashionable thinking in government is around mainstreaming, but clearly these mainstreaming policies don’t work in a recession. I’ve raised these issues but it’s fallen on deaf ears. All the indications are that it’s seen as a low priority.’
Work and Pensions minister Jim Knight is meeting Wahhab next week in an effort to avert Wahhab’s resignation.
The restaurant owner said he was frustrated that the government had axed a series of employment initiatives that were designed to target ethnic minorities, replacing them with mainstream programmes that were not aimed at any particular group.
A National Audit Office report for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in February last year, warned that the lack of schemes aimed at ethnic minorities would fail to tackle the employment gap between communities.
They wrote: “The Department has moved away from a direct focus on ethnic minorities towards a focus on disadvantaged groups and areas.
“This shift in focus… carries the risk that ethnic minorities may not receive the help that they need to gain employment.”
Critics say the government has ignored its’ own advice in favour of a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Wahhab commented: ‘In the time I’ve been on the taskforce, there were five different DWP-funded initiatives dealing with the ethnic minority employment gap. One by one they’ve all been scrapped.
‘There is a fear of the Daily Mail, that any measure that could rectify an unfair outcome would be seen as “special favours” that would lead to a “whites need not apply for jobs” situation’.
Since mid-2006, when the Commission for Racial Equality was merged with the new Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the DWP has scrapped a range of initiatives including the Ethnic Minority Outreach Programme, the Ethnic Minority Flexible Fund, Specialist Employment Advisors, and Partners Outreach for Ethnic Minorities.
The political climate seemed very different in 2003, when the former Prime Minister Tony Blair led a drive to tackle workplace discrimination. Many of the ethnic minority schemes began in that year, when Blair pledged to eradicate barriers facing Black jobseekers by 2013.
Writing in the foreword to a Cabinet Office report Ethnic Minorities in the Labour Market, Blair said: “In ten years’ time, ethnic minority groups living in Britain should not face disproportionate barriers to accessing and realising opportunities for achievement in the labour market.”
But minister Jim Murphy, giving evidence to a House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee in 2007, said: “There has been a general view that to close the ethnic minority employment gap the previous analysis from about 2003 was it would take a century, based on the fact that there had been about a 3% improvement over two decades.”
The MPs found that “the upward trend is slow and erratic, the ‘ethnic penalty’ remains high, and in the foreseeable future [and the gap] will not close sufficiently to claim success. It is likely that there will have to be more radical proposals to tackle discrimination and the performance of employment support for ethnic minorities.”
The cross-party committee estimated that, based on the gradual rate of progress between 2003 and 2006, it would take 30 years to eliminate the employment gap. However this optimistic assessment does not take into account the effects of recessions, when Black workers are more likely to be laid off, a pattern Wahhab says is happening during the current downturn.
The task will not have been made any easier after the government scrapped a Public Service Agreement (PSA) to reduce the ethnic minority employment, following a “rationalisation of targets.”
The PSA obliged government to “significantly reduce the difference between the employment rates of the disadvantaged groups and the overall rate.”
Ministers interpreted the word “significantly” to mean a 1% drop in the gap, before ditching the PSA altogether in spring last year.
A report by the Business Commission on Race Equality in the Workplace, produced for the DWP in October 2007, found that over 60% of businesses “did not recognise a connection between diversity and business performance”, and that four out of every five employers did not see any need to improve recruitment and progression for ethnic minority staff, or review the impact of their recruitment procedures on race equality.
The cost of this ethnic employment gap amounts £8.6 billion in lost revenues each year; £1.3 billion in tax revenues, and over £7 billion in lost output.
The Business Commission noted at the time that the ethnic minority employment gap was one percentage point below the average level compared to 1985.
They concluded: “Previous efforts [to reduce the gap] have failed because of a lack of priority and accountability [from government]. The continuation of the ethnic minority employment gap is not consistent with this country’s prosperity, contentment or traditions of fairness. The solution to this problem is in Government’s hands.
“The aim is to effect a large scale change in culture. There is no over-arching goal towards which everyone can progress. There are no interim milestones for which organisations can be held accountable. And there is insufficient knowledge of the detail of discrimination to support change. Without unequivocal leadership from Government, business practice in race equality will not change.”
The Business Commission recommended that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, led by Trevor Phillips, carry out thematic sector-based reviews of business starting this year, and that the Chancellor Alistair Darling takes personal responsibility for eradicating the ethnic employment gap.
Although experts claim there are several reasons for the employment gap – sometimes known as an “ethnic penalty” – it is widely agreed that discrimination by employers plays a significant part.
The persistence of the employment gap, virtually unchanged in decades, stands in stark contrast to image that Britain is considerably less racist today than the 1970s.
Black African, Indian and Chinese groups were more likely to have a degree than their white counterparts. Statistics also show that 85% of Asians and 82% of African and Caribbean people continue into further and higher education, compared with 69% of white people.
Yet only 4% of ethnic minority employees are in work training programmes as against 10% white employees, according to the National Audit Office.
Research by the Institute of Public Policy Research shows that white graduates are three times more likely than ethnic minority graduates to be offered a position by a top British company, while a survey in 2000 completed by 40 FTSE-100 companies showed that only one per cent of senior management positions were held by people from ethnic minority communities.
Experts say these figures demonstrate why the private sector should be covered by the new Equalities Bill. The government plan to exempt business from the proposed law, as is the case with previous race relations legislation.
In addition to the employment gap, a Cabinet Office study uncovered evidence of race discrimination within the workplace. Comparing equally-qualified Black and White workers, it fond that white employees earned on average £116 less per week, or £6,000 per year. Bangladesh and Pakistan workers earned on average £7,800 less than whites with the same qualifications.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway