Ethnic Minority Unemployment in Britain

The purpose of this paper is to examine the explanations for the over-representation of ethnic minorities in British unemployment statistics, and to investigate how the black population is placed at a disadvantage by the negative factors which are at work in the sphere of employment.

I will review the literature researched into the issue, provide a brief overview of the arguments presented, and analyse the arguments proposed by the authors in their attempt to explain the overrepresentation of the black population in unemployment data and I shall critically assess how applicable these reasons are when trying to provide a sound explanation for the subject.

I shall endeavour to investigate where there are gaps in the current literature and research into black unemployment, and I will suggest how these voids can be filled through new research and investigations, and consequently provide the development of new black unemployment theory. As with every paper that deals with ambiguous terminology, it is necessary to define what one means when discussing both 'blacks' and 'ethnic minorities' and the politically manipulated notion of 'unemployment'.

By synthesising definitions by authors such as Fevre (1984) and Field (1981) I shall define an ethnic minority citizen or 'black' person as having the same meaning and in very general terms, can be defined as an individual who is not from the 'white British race' (Field, 1981: 78) [this includes all races: Asian, Afro-Caribbean, Eastern European, Southern European etc] However, one must also appreciate that when discussing the work of American authors, the use of the term 'black' is very different to the UK usage of the word, and is related to the notion an individual coming from a Negro background and being of 'black' appearance [as opposed to 'brown' when describing Asians etc]. For the purposes of this essay, I shall take the American definition of a 'black person' as meaning an individual from any ethnic minority group. When I refer to the term 'unemployment' I will adopt the notion of an individual not taking an active role in the labour market, and is therefore not working for a monetary income.

I will not attach any form of time consideration to the definition when I use the term, for example unemployment over one-year is often considered 'long-term unemployment' however, I shall refrain from using such methods unless otherwise stated. During the 1950's, most black immigrants came to the UK as part of a replacement labour force, which was urgently needed following the loss of a large proportion of the nations labour force during the war. Black workers occupied the less skilled, the dirtiest, and the lowest paid jobs. Furthermore, the majority of black worker's housing and their place of employment were located in inner city areas, thereby 'constraining the labour market opportunities of the following generations' (Hudson, 1995: 34).

The flexible and cheap labour which black immigrants supplied to the UK was an essential component of the moderate but sustained expansion of the UK economy in the 1950's and early 1960's. Throughout northern Europe there was a similar pattern of immigration by 'guest-workers' from southern Europe and North Africans, whilst in the 1970's ethnic minorities, 'especially from South Africa, again played an important role in the restructuring of the UK economy' (Williams, 1995: 67). This wave of immigration saw ethnic minorities occupying many of the niches for casual and home workers in the emerging system of flexible employment and Owen and Green (1992) argue that to some extent, the availability of these ethnic minority workers helped to shape the new forms of employment relations which we are accustomed to today.

The economic disadvantages of black people are well researched and are frequently highlighted in academic literature. However, these disadvantages are further expressed and compounded by the fact that black people face higher unemployment rates compared to white people. Furthermore, blacks are more likely than whites to lose their jobs because as Brown (1984) argues 'the gap between black and white unemployment rates is related to occupational inequality' (Brown, 1984: 89). This is exemplified by the fact that in 1984, male unemployment rates were similar for whites and Indians, but were almost three times higher for Pakistanis/Bangladeshis and Afro-Caribbeans.

Townsend (1989) argues in 'The Impact of Recession' that during much of the 1980's, ethnic minorities were concentrated in those jobs most severely affected by the recession. These jobs were in the traditional and marginal industries concentrated in the hard-hit inner cities. In addition, Townsend suggests that the young age profile of the non-white communities in the UK meant that disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority workers were entering the labour market at a time of recession. By 1990, the unemployment rates of white people and Indian people were virtually identical, whilst the rates for Afro-Caribbeans and Pakistani/Bangladeshi were about double white unemployment rates.

This pattern is broadly confirmed by the 1991 Census, but which also reveals that there are concentrated higher rates of unemployment in some local labour markets, for example 45% of South Asians in Tower Hamlets and 38% of the Afro-Caribbean labour force in Liverpool were unemployed. However, Field (1986) suggests that as the recession became more generalised in the 1990's, there was some convergence of unemployment and a decrease in the geographical concentration of black unemployment. The information I obtained from reviewing a wide range of literature on black unemployment, much of which attempts to explain the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in unemployment statistics, helps emphasise a number of common themes which begin to emerge from the texts I studied, all of which make an effort to explain black unemployment.