Racism and integration in the workplace

Written by:
Rakib Ehsan
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The politics around social integration are highly contested, with ethnic segregation by area or school often cited as a barrier to a successfully integrated society. But what of the labour market? Here, researcher Rakib Ehsan looks at racial harassment reported by BME people, and how the data connects, interestingly, to integration in the workplace.

Racism in the workplace continues to be a major problem in the UK. A recent survey by trade union Prospect found that nearly half of ethnic minority workers had witnessed racism in their workplace, with a quarter of black and ethnic minority (BME) employees reporting that they had been racially abused. 

Numerous studies, including CV-based field experiments, have discovered ‘ethnic penalties’ in the British labour market. As well as ethnic inequalities surrounding job opportunities, employment and salary, racial harassment also appears to be a widespread problem in the British economy. 

The figure below shows reported discrimination among ethnic minority people who are separated into three categories: ethnically-mixed workplaces (where a few or none of their work colleagues belong to the same ethnic group as them); bonding places of work (where about half or more of their co-workers belong to the same ethnic group as them); and unemployed/not in work (NIW). The statistically significant results found by looking at reported discrimination (which includes discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity and/or religion) and finding how it links employment/ workplace. The research model used controls for ethnicity, gender, age, birthplace, education, social class, main language spoken at home, co-ethnicity of friendship group, neighbourhood ethnic density and neighbourhood deprivation. The data source is the 2010 EMBES, which remains the most comprehensive survey on the social experiences and political attitudes of British ethnic minorities.

As you can see, ethnic minority people who work in ethnically-mixed workplaces are the most likely to report discrimination. Those who are employed in more ethnically segregated, or ‘bonding’, places of work are less likely to report discrimination. Ethnic minority people who are unemployed/not in work are the least likely to report discrimination out of the three categories. 

The academic field of intergroup studies has tended to prioritise the positive side effects of inter-ethnic contact. This was demonstrated by a meta-analysis of 714 independent studies in the field of intergroup relations, with the study finding that the vast majority of cases found a relationship between increased inter-ethnic contact and prejudice reduction (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006). Thomas Pettigrew, a leading contributor to the discipline, concluded that rigorous research into the more negative effects of intergroup contact was relatively underdeveloped. 

Much of the social and political commentariat has championed the benefits of social integration: breaking down barriers, combating negative stereotypes and developing bonds of trust, mutual understanding and respect through increased familiarity. It is rational to suppose that ethnically-mixed friendship groups in the UK are unlikely to be an arena for discriminatory experiences. Friends are usually sources of enjoyment and support, with diverse networks having the potential to strengthen broader community cohesion. It should be noted that there is also a strong degree of self-selection. People have considerable freedom when it comes to withdrawing from unhealthy relationships and shaping their own friendship network. 

However, it is entirely plausible that increased intergroup contact heightens the probability of experiencing racial (and religious) discrimination in the workplace. People have far less control over their employment network; co-workers are not personally selected. Meanwhile, withdrawing oneself from a stressful workplace is far more difficult due to the everyday reality of financial obligations. In a world of performance-related assessments and internal promotion opportunities, intense competition characterises much of Britain’s market economy. This competitiveness is naturally further complicated by the multi-ethnic, religiously diverse nature of the UK’s labour market. Therefore, workplaces in the UK which are ethnically mixed, but include smaller groups of BME people, tend to be where racism is felt most keenly. 

For my PhD thesis, I conducted 25 semi-structured interviews in my hometown of Luton to complement this quantitative analysis. The findings from the interviews lent support to this analysis. Reported episodes of racial and religious discrimination usually took place in ethnically-mixed workplaces in which the respondent was in a minority, with “occupationally segregated” interviewees tending not to report discrimination at their place of work. 

One interviewee, a 28-year-old man of Bangladeshi origin, felt that white British higher management in the NHS tended to be more disrespectful and unprofessional towards non-white workers (such as himself) and non-British employees. Another participant, a 28-year-old woman of Jamaican and St Lucian heritage, stated that white work colleagues would often call her “feisty” and “sassy,” which she interpreted as “thinly-veiled racial microaggressions”. 

While the majority of cases of reported workplace discrimination were ‘white-on-BME’, a Bangladeshi-born female council officer spoke of tensions between ethnic minorities over how public resources were allocated across various community groups. The interviewee also expressed the view that higher-level management at times showed an “uncaring, dispassionate attitude” towards funding for vulnerable members of South Asian communities. Interestingly, this included managers of Black Caribbean origin.

The research - quantitive and qualitative - shows that social integration through work can heighten exposure to discriminatory experiences for BME people. While previous studies have suggested that occupationally segregated BME people are “pushed into” ethnic economic enclaves due to employer discrimination in the wider labour market, they also appear to be better insulated against the discrimination experienced by those in more ethnically-mixed workplaces. Ethnic minority people who are not economically active (unemployed or not in work) are, not surprisingly, the least likely to report discrimination. This suggests that labour market discrimination is a particular problem when examining the broader discriminatory experiences of BME people. 

The obvious question that the research invites is: what can employers do to make ethnically mixed workplaces safe and inclusive environments for BME people?

The findings highlight the complexities attached to social integration. Britain’s multi-ethnic, religiously diverse labour market poses a challenge for the existing system of governance.




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