Increasing economic opportunity, addressing ethnic inequalities

Labour market disadvantage is one of the factors highlighted in the green paper as affecting integration, given the emphasis on equalising economic opportunities as a priority. IRiS academic, Dr Laurence Lessard-Phillips, explores this issue in more detail.

Fulfilling individuals’ potential within the labour market has been a long-time focus of recent governments. The Strategy Green Paper highlights the main challenges stopping this from happening, with a focus on individuals from ethnic minority groups, where important disadvantages exist and need to be effectively tackled. This includes a brief overview on changing inequalities in getting jobs (or not), where the rates of employment, unemployment, and economic inactivity (especially for women) between ethnic groups are highlighted, as well as the type and ‘quality’ of these jobs, career progression, and job retention. Here the emphasis is on increasing economic opportunities for groups regardless of migration status and highlighting an area of inequality that does not appear to disappear over time.

In a slight departure from other sections, the report states what the government is currently doing rather than setting plans for intervention, despite some sections covering measures not presently implemented. This includes measures undertaken to tackle these challenges via capacity-building within local JobCentre Plus centres and linking with other integration areas; implementing integration via Universal Credit (with a comment stating that “we will expect more people from ethnic minorities to be subject to work related requirements as a condition of receiving Universal Credit” (p. 52) that potentially implies bias); improving employment via tailored programmes, training, awareness raising, traineeship funding (although how this could improve social mobility is unclear), and support employment with regard to recruitment and retention; focus on local solutions and interventions; boosting early years education provision in disadvantaged areas (recognising that barriers to economic opportunity start early but still oddly placed within the strategy); and provide career guidance.

What is presented in this strategy with regard to increasing economic opportunity deals with an area of integration that is quite important, extensively researched, and a priority area for policy, but not necessarily public opinion, when assessing integration. By extending the scope to tackling ethnic inequalities, which is of utmost importance and requires policy attention, it does, however, conflate issues of integration of recent migrants and inclusion of (often more disadvantaged) established populations. By linking the two together, the assumption is that, regardless of time spent in the country or whether they were born in the UK, certain individuals will always be perceived as outsiders. In this instance, equating low levels of economic rates to low level of integration ignores the looking at systemic issues at play, such as discrimination. This is especially relevant if we look at the inequalities that exist on the labour market for members of ethnic minority groups with similar qualifications as the white British. This focus also overlooks evidence looking into the difficult inclusion of individuals who are not defined (or understood as) as ethnic minorities per se in the British labour market, such as EU8 citizens. Given Brexit, this is a significant area of consideration.

Important aspects of economic integration have been overlooked here (such as poverty). Issues of integration and inclusion are difficult to isolate and disentangle, but are more likely to involve different mechanisms and needs depending on the migration status, or national origins, of those involved. Refugees are a good example of this. The fact that the interventions presented are likely to have an impact beyond the groups discussed in the strategy will most likely exacerbate these issues, but a more optimistic viewpoint would suggest that this broad strategy is also likely to help individuals in need of support. Thorough evaluations of interventions, and their applicability beyond specific local labour markets, will be required, as well as an investigation of the available evidence.

Recognising the complexity of the issue and how increasing economic opportunity cannot happen on its own is important. So is the acknowledgement that attitudes, bias, and prejudice are barriers that, despite individuals’ best efforts, may be very difficult to surmount. Yet, these issues may require more attention when designing the planned strategy.


Useful reading

Cheung, S.Y., Phillimore, J., 2014. Refugees, Social Capital, and Labour Market Integration in the UK. Sociology 48, 518–536.

Demireva, N., 2011. New migrants in the UK: employment patterns and occupational attainment. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37, 637–655.

Galandini, S. and Lessard-Phillips, L. (2016). Dimensions of integration in policy discourses. Unity out of diversity? Research in Brief.

Galandini, S. and Lessard-Phillips, L. (2016). Integration: The public’s view. Unity out of diversity? Research in Brief.

Sobolewska, M., Galandini, S., Lessard-Phillips, L., 2017. The public view of immigrant integration: multidimensional and consensual. Evidence from survey experiments in the UK and the Netherlands. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43, 58–79.

Zwysen, W., Longhi, S., 2017. Employment and earning differences in the early career of ethnic minority British graduates: the importance of university career, parental background and area characteristics. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1–19.

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