Ethnic minority workers and low paid jobs: Hiding in plain sight?

Ethnic minority workers and low paid jobs: Hiding in plain sight?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation today published research looking at ‘in-work poverty, ethnicity and workplace cultures’ (Helen Barnard has also written a blog accompanying the report). In contrast to a lot of the stuff you can read about ‘cultures’ in relation to the prevalence and persistence of poverty, the report focuses on ‘informal workplace practices’ that serve to exclude some low paid workers from progressing in work or accessing opportunities to move out of low paid jobs.

Most people familiar with current poverty work in the UK will be aware that low pay and temporary insecure employment are major factors. Even where, in the language of the current government, people ‘do the right thing’ and take a full time job, the wages on offer often does not provide an income sufficient to lift the family or household out of poverty. The report notes that ‘several ethnic groups are known to have a high proportion of minimum wage workers, particularly Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and migrant workers.’ (p4). Again this might not be news to many people but the real strength of the report is how it manages to highlight the informal processes which keep people in these low paid jobs, even where there are strong and clear aspirations for career progression.

Whilst the researchers managed to find some examples of good practice amongst employers and some supportive line managers, they found far more examples of poor practice. Examples included:

  • Jobs not being advertised externally, instead being accessed through family & friends
  • The focus of training being on the current job
  • Lack of informal development opportunities such as shadowing or mentoring
  • Under-recognition of skills and/or non-recognition of overseas qualifications

The North East Child Poverty Commission and the North East Regional Refugee Forum recently published a report called Written out of the Picture (part funded by JRF) which suggested that tackling poverty amongst refugees and asylum seekers was not a priority for central or local government and that child poverty legislation and strategies often ignored them. However, all workers are covered by equal opportunities policies and legislation and so the same charge cannot be applied in this instance. The report, instead:

maps the various ways in which informal workplace practices can trap some workers in low-paid work and contribute to persistent in-work poverty. It also shows that such processes can undermine equal opportunities policies and processes, and thus disproportionately affect ethnic minorities in low paid work. Power imbalances between managers and low paid workers shape patterns of daily workplace interactions in which some workers are recognised and included, while others are marginalized. These practices are often hidden from the view of HR managers who feel that equal opportunities policies are working well in practice across their organisations. (my emphases)

The suggestion is that even where relevant equality policies are in place, the implementation of them is often hidden from the view of senior managers or directors, even when the high proportion of ethnic minorities in low paid jobs is clear for all to see. Understanding how policies and processes are implemented is therefore crucial to changing an organisations culture or ‘behaviour’, and we’ll be blogging more about this in future.

The research includes some useful recommendations for a range of stakeholders including employers, government agencies and trade unions and it is to be hoped that many of them are taken up. However, when I was reading these and the report more generally, I was reminded of a quote from an article by Keep & Mayhew (sent to me by Rob Macdonald at Teesside University). They had been involved in a research project looking at ‘low-end jobs in hotels, hospitals, retail, food processing and call centres’ (p569) which found little appetite for training amongst employers as it wasn’t deemed necessary or beneficial. They state:

Most importantly, employers were content to keep jobs low skill and found little difficulty in filling vacancies. Given their current product and production strategiesthere was limited demand for a more skilled workforce. It might be argued that subsidising the acquisition of qualifications for such workers might not lead to most of the recipients doing any better with their present employer, but that it opens up opportunities elsewhere. However, two points need to be made. First, the evidence from this project strongly suggests that employers are willing to co-operate only at low levels of training and qualification. Second, even if the prospects of some workers are improved, it will be at the expense of others, as long as the structure of jobs and of their design remains unaltered. (my emphases)

These employment practices exist because they are allowed to exist and because they are (assumed to be) beneficial to the owners or managers employing or supervising low paid workers. As long as we have low skilled, low paid, precarious work in the UK, someone will have to do it, regardless of their background or ethnicity. If we improve the situation for (some) workers from ethnic minorities, will this ‘be at the expense of others’ as Keep & Mayhew suggest and as the JRF study hints at (p6)? If this is the case, the question then needs to be how do we tackle low pay, full stop.

Stephen Crossley


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