Race Matters

PM's blind-spot on 20/20 vision

David Cameron tweeted yesterday “more people from ethnic minority backgrounds in work since records began.” But does this stand up to scrutiny? Lester Holloway investigates

Do we have record levels of racial equality in employment, as the Prime Minister suggested in a tweet yesterday? Well, no, not in relative terms. The reason is simple: there is indeed a higher overall number of ethnic minorities in work, but relative levels of inequality – how BME levels compare to White – has remained virtually static, even during the economic recovery.
Britain has not got more equal. It has more people in work but the same inequality.

TUC research, released yesterday, revealed that BME workers with a degree were two and a half times more likely to be unemployed compared to their white counterparts. This chimes with previous Runnymede Trust research.

Runnymede looked at individual ethnic groups and found that every single BME community was more likely to be unemployed after graduation compared to their white counterparts.

Pakistani and Bangladeshi graduates fared the worst. British Caribbean graduates were more likely to take non-professional jobs below their qualification level, and that there was also a significant earnings gap between BME graduates as a whole and white graduates.

An IPPR report last year highlighted the huge gulf between rising BME educational achievement and the persistent ethnic employment gap. Indeed there is a whole shelf full of research going back decades into the static levels of employment discrimination faced by people of colour.

In one way the problem is getting worse. This is because while the ‘ethnic penalty’ in jobs and wages remains stuck, the ever-increasing numbers of BME working age population is rising fast. This means the total number of BME unemployed people is also increasing even while the relative levels of inequality remain the same.

In fairness to the Prime Minister he has recognised the problem, as Runnymede’s director Dr Omar Khan pointed out recently. All the more baffling, then, that Cameron’s tweet appeared to overlook his own words on the subject and instead gave the impression that things are moving in the right direction when in reality workplace race inequality is flatlining.

My guess is that uppermost in Cameron’s mind was the Government’s own ’20/20′ pledge; 20 percent more BME people in work by the year 2020. The fundamental flaw with this is that it isn’t relative or proportional. 

Theoretically if the overall UK workforce grows by 25 percent, and the BME workforce by 20 percent, Cameron will have met his ethnic minority target while simultaneously presiding over a net decrease in ethnic minority employment equality.

Government figures show that BME employment is increasing from a low during the recession. It would be absolutely extraordinary if it didn’t. However white employment levels are also increasing and make up the bulk of the 2 million extra jobs that ministers often boast about.

Business in the Community data published last year shows that year-on-year unemployment rates for BME people has decreased at a slower rate than for white people. In other words, as new jobs become available, bosses are hiring white staff at a disproportionately higher rate than ethnic minorities.

Last year the BME employment rate was 60.1 percent compared to 75 percent for white, a 15 point gap.

This represents virtually no change in proportional disadvantage since the Business Commission in 2007 found the gap was 60:76. The last decade has seen a tiny 0.9% improvement in comparative employment rates between BME and white workers.

To put it another way, at the current rate of progress we will have to wait 165 years, until the year 2181, for workplace equality in Britain. Never mind ’20/20′, on current trends race equality will come in 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 + 5 years time. Equality cannot wait that long.

It is also worth noting that the 0.9 percent increase in race equality over the last ten years is almost entirely down to a one percent decrease in white employment. The positive increase for BME people is an even more minuscule 0.1 percent over the decade, or 0.01 percent per year.

If we assume the proportion of white employment were to remain the same, a reasonable assumption, it would take an incredible 1,490 years to achieve workplace race equality. Or we would have it today if the process had started in 560 AD when we were part of the Roman Empire.

Equality? It’s all relative, and that’s why we need Government to measure BME outcomes relative to white outcomes.

In order for that to happen, Cameron and his ministers need to stop believing their own publicity and accept that racial inequality is a proportional gap. It cannot be addressed by counting absolute numbers of BME workers in isolation.

Cameron’s first action after talking about his concerns on workplace racial inequality was to appoint David Lammy to look into criminal justice inequality, an entirely different topic. There are serious and important problems for Lammy to address, but what is also needed is a race equality in employment czar to directly tackle the issues Cameron spoke about.

The Prime Minister has made some progressive statements on the need to tackle racial inequality in work. But someone needs to remind him that the proof of the pudding isn’t BME citizens finding some leftover crumbs on the plate but instead BME workers enjoying a fair slice of the pie.

Lester Holloway tweets at @brolezholloway

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