This weighty tomb from the Performance and Innovation Unit at the Cabinet Office entitled Ethnic Minorities and the Labour Market takes a comprehensive look at the employment situation of ethnic minorities. It examines the problems members of minority ethnic communities face in securing employment and tries to identify why this is the case. This is an interim report, and as such it only makes a tentative foray into proposing policy options aimed at remedying problems. Importantly, the report includes consideration of religion in its analysis. It shows that Muslims have a lot of catching up to do - along with black men and women, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi Muslims are consistently the most disadvantaged group.
A whole range of factors affects the chances of getting paid work. These concern the characteristics of people themselves in terms of qualifications, language proficiency, access to housing and transport, as well as factors which determine the level of demand for their labour - the state of the local economy for instance. After accounting for all of this, the report concludes that all minority groups still remain disadvantaged in terms of employment and attainment in jobs. Discrimination plays a crucial role in maintaining that gap.
Although the report considers a number of issues including housing, education and health; analysis by religion is focused largely on employment and is based on ethnicity. Statistics are presented on Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian Muslims, alongside Hindus, Sikhs and all others combined into one last group. The report finds that religious and cultural factors do make a difference in outcomes, but as with discrimination, accounting for their influence is difficult. Nonetheless, the picture for Muslims is disturbing. Muslims were least likely to be in paid work, whilst Hindus were the most likely. Three times the proportion of Muslims were unemployed when compared with Hindus. Muslims were also more likely to be in low pay - almost a quarter earned less than £115 per week, compared to around one in ten Sikhs and Hindus.
However, marrying religion and employment is a complicated business and does not always produce the clearest explanations. Although Muslims have high unemployment rates overall, Indian Muslims have lower unemployment rates than Sikh men. Indian Muslims also have the highest share in the top income band - but they are still over-represented in the bottom band. This mixed message is broadly in line with earlier studies, such as Tariq Modood's definitive Policy Studies Institute report Ethnic Minorities in Britain (1997) which showed Bangladeshis and Pakistanis experiencing greater disadvantage whilst their co-religionists from India doing much better. The Cabinet Office report notes "it is clear that Indian Muslims are strikingly different from South Asian Muslims in their achievement rates, suggesting that far more is at play than just religious effects". Far more worrying is the report's observation that younger generations of disadvantaged groups are not showing signs of breakthrough. This suggests more deep-rooted and complex problems.
An area where cultural factors could be playing a role is in the extent to which women from south Asian communities take part in employment. Over four times as many Bangladeshi women are unemployed compared with the group with the lowest rate of female unemployment - Indian Muslim women. This underlines the complex interplay between religious and other factors such as culture, class, background and education. The report also cites instances where Muslims employees believe they have been disadvantaged due to their faith - for taking time off for Eid through to not socialising by going out for a drink on a Friday evening. From the perspective of employers, the report notes that some jobs might not be compatible with prayer requirements, but no examples are furnished to back this up.
Taking a forward look - another task fraught with difficulties given the complex nature of issues at stake - the report envisages a mixed picture in the short term with both convergence and divergence of education outcomes but slow convergence in unemployment. This should be helped along by a number of factors including greater social integration, improving educational outcomes, demographic tends (an increasingly important role as more and more members of ethnic minority communities become an increasingly large proportion of the working age population), tolerance and mobility.
The final report, which will include policy recommendations is not due till the summer. In the meantime, the interim report is insightful and offers much to consider. The inclusion of religious factors in the analysis is a welcome development. It confirms what campaigners have been arguing for some time and may open the way for further research into this area.
The persistence of disadvantage amongst Muslim Bangladeshis and Pakistanis (as well as Black caribbeans) - needs to be better understood. Clearly, religious affiliation is helpful when analysing incidence, but we are not yet sure about its role in helping us understand the cause. If it is not part of the problem, religion must become part of the solution. The role voluntary and community organisations - both religious and secular - can play in alleviating some of this disadvantage is something that needs to be examined as part of a broader approach to tackling workplace discrimination and disadvantage. Hopefully, this is something the final report will consider.
Chair of Public Affairs, Muslim Council of Britain