Race Matters

Ethnic unemployment in Britain (1972-2012)

The labour market (mis)fortunes of minority ethnic groups are a good indicator of social justice as well as ethnic integration. Unemployment in the period of economic recessions is an especially telling indicator of societal and employer fair treatment of minority ethnic groups.

In the last four decades, there have been three recessions: in the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and that since 2008. One of our key interests at the Institute for Social Change, where I work, is to see how minority ethnic groups fared in employment, especially during times of recession.

To get a clear picture of the effects of recessions we pooled data from the General Household Survey (1972-2005) and the Labour Force Survey (1982-2012), to gain an understanding of unemployment rates of minority ethnic groups from 1972-2012.

When approaching the data we defined unemployment rate as the proportion of the unemployed out of the economically active. The data covers men aged 16-64 and women aged 16-60 in Great Britain. Four ethnic groups are included in this analysis: White, Black (Black Caribbean and Black African), Pakistanis/Bangladeshis, and Other (Indians and Chinese are grouped into this category as they are less likely to find themselves unemployed).

In 1980, just over a tenth of Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men were unemployed. Only 7% of white men were unemployed.

When the recession started to hit in 1981, unemployment rose to 10% for White men, but jumped to 26% for Pakistani/Bangladeshi men. When the recession was at its highest in 1982, Black and Pakistani/Bangladeshi men’s unemployment rate reached nearly 30% as compared with only 12% for White men.

When the overall economic situation started to improve in 1983/4, the unemployment rate of the Pakistani/Bangladeshi men actually increased by around 4 percentage points before it began to fall. Overall, the unemployment rates for Black and Pakistani/Bangladeshi men were much higher and endured for much longer than those of White men.

During the second recession in the early 1990s, the picture was roughly the same as in the first one, although this time, the high unemployment rates for the Pakistani/Bangladeshi men did not last as long.

In the current recession, the unemployment rates for minority ethnic men were much lower than in the previous recessions but Black men were still twice as likely to be unemployed as White men. Improving numbers overall are partly due to large numbers of Pakistani/Bangladeshi men turning to self-employment, such as taxi-driving and catering, making them less vulnerable to recessions than Black men.

We found that unemployment rates are generally lower for women than for men. However, minority ethnic women are more disadvantaged than White women, just as in the case of men. The disparity ratio for Black/White women’s unemployment rates was similar to that of their male counterparts.

We noticed that Pakistani/Bangladeshi women’s unemployment rates were much higher than even Black women’s rates. This is due to the very higher inactivity rates among Pakistani/Bangladeshi women (around 75%) because of their caring responsibilities and cultural traditions, rendering the job-seekers among the economically active ‘particularly positively selected’.

Overall, people of Black and Pakistani/Bangladeshi origins, particularly men, had much higher unemployment rates in the last three decades. They have bore the brunt of unemployment during the recessions. They were more likely to be unemployed at the start of recessions, were hit the hardest at the height of recessions, and continued to experience much higher unemployment rates when the economic situation improved. They were the first to go and last to come, especially during the first two recessions.

In the current recession, unemployment rates are improving for minority ethnic groups. However, despite these signs of social progress, Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups are still nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts.

We need to address this. More must be done to move this progress faster and to bring about ethnic equality in the workplace.

Yaojun Li is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester

Photo Credit: Jovike, Flickr
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