New approaches needed to tackle labour market discrimination against ethnic minorities in Europe, say experts

Emmanuelle Nsun says she only became fully aware of the racial bias that followed her throughout her university years when she started applying for jobs after graduation. Nsun, 27, now runs a project focused on issues of race and feminism at the Liège cultural centre, La Zone, in Belgium. (Linda A.Thompson)

Like many of her art history classmates, Emmanuelle Nsun struggled to find a job after graduating from a university in Liège, a city in the French-speaking part of Belgium. She didn’t think much of it at first. She knew going into her studies that jobs in the art world were scant.

But when friends started being hired left and right, doubts slowly settled in. “Am I not finding a job because the industry is oversaturated? Because I don’t have the competencies? Or because I’m Black?” Nsun, now 27, remembers thinking.

Then, one day, she and a friend applied for the same job at a Brussels non-profit. They had similar qualifications and similar levels of experience, Nsun says. But the friend was contacted by the NGO that same hour and eventually hired, while Nsun never heard back from them. “That was really the moment when I said: ‘OK, there’s a problem here.’”

Nsun, who says her 18-month job search caused her to develop anxiety and low self-esteem, is by no means alone with such experiences. A recent report from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) has found that ethnic minorities face significant discrimination in the workplace across Europe, with access to jobs being identified as one of the steepest hurdles, and job insecurity and wage disparities a constant across the continent.

“Workplace discrimination is incredibly widespread,” says Ojeaku Nwabuzo, a senior research officer at ENAR. “Things haven’t been progressing in terms of people from ethnic minorities or religious minorities being able to get into labour market,” she says.

The ENAR findings are backed by a 2015-2016 report from the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), which found that out of all domains of life, ethnic minorities report the highest levels of discrimination in relation to employment. Twenty-nine percent of the survey’s 25,500 respondents that applied for jobs in the five years preceding the survey felt discriminated against, with Roma citizens and those with a North African background worst affected.

“You could probably say this is as big a problem as gender inequality and sexual harassment, but it’s more below the surface,” says John Wrench, a Denmark-based visiting professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has done extensive research on discrimination in Europe. “That’s the whole problem with this issue; that it carries on reproducing itself below the surface year after year, and people don’t want to think that it’s happening.”

Stephen Ashe, a researcher at University of Manchester’s Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity, points out that experiences of workplace discrimination are typically a lot murkier than what Nsun experienced, particularly for second and third-generation migrants. Racist attitudes, he says, have evolved from the high point of empire, when scientific racism – which posits that some races are superior to others based on pseudo-scientific beliefs – was used to justify colonialism.

“People very rarely talk in that explicit language of racism nowadays. It’s far more common, for example, that people who are Black are questioned on their competence or referred to as incompetent,” he says, noting that such comments are a 21st-century, watered-down version of the intellectual inferiority argument brandished by European colonisers.

“This is what diversity looks like”

Workplace measures or job requirements that seem neutral can also be discriminatory, Larry Olomoofe, a Poland-based independent hate crimes expert, points out. He notes that EU anti-racial discrimination legislation defines such discrimination – whether direct or indirect – as different treatment based on racial or ethnic grounds.

That’s why a previous requirement that London police officers wear helmets was, for instance, indirectly discriminatory against Sikh and Muslim officers, according to Olomoofe. Because the helmet’s only function was to hold the official police crest, in 2001 the Metropolitan Police decided to allow officers to wear items such as turbans and headscarves to which the police badge could be affixed.

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Olomoofe remembers telling others about the revised policy and being told that it was ‘silly’. “And I said: ‘No, this is what diversity looks like.”

Other times, workplace racial discrimination only becomes evident when a firm’s overall hiring, promotion and dismissal practices are examined, Nwabuzo says. “You look at the organisation and no-one in the senior management or higher parts of the organisation is from an ethnic minority. Now is any specific person being discriminated against? I’m not sure, but there’s some sort of structural problem going on there to do with how people are not progressing,” she says.

“That’s the kind of experience we see for minorities who may be born and educated in Europe, and they should have the same opportunities and outcomes in the labour market as everybody else, but they don’t,” Nwabuzo says.

In the FRA survey, 22 per cent of people with a Turkish background, for instance, reported feeling discriminated against because of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion when looking for work in Germany in the past five years. In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, Roma applicants often are incapable of meeting the requirements set by employers because they come up through a segregated education system that doesn’t earn them the necessary qualifications, according to the ENAR report.

That’s one of the problems, experts say – that structural discrimination isn’t recognised as just that. That’s why implicit bias training of the kind organised by Starbucks in the US after an employee called the police on two African-American patrons while they waited for a colleague misses the point, Ashe says. “Far too many employers rely on unconscious bias training and implicit attitude testing as a kind of silver bullet, as a cure for workplace racism, but what these things are doing is reducing workplace racism to individual biases and attitudes,” he says.

Because even though racism affects individuals, racism is not an individual issue, says Dr Emilia Roig, founder and executive director of the Berlin-based Centre for Intersectional Justice. “What’s at stake is social inequality, and social injustice,” she says, adding that the role played by institutions and systems tends to be overlooked.

“It’s not about looking at culprits and victims and punishing people, but about what we can do to change laws and policies to get more equality and a more balanced distribution of labour.”

No financial imperative to tackle discrimination

This lack of understanding of workplace racism as something structural is a key reason that European employers underestimate the scope of the issue, Wrench says. “They think it’s a rather specialised problem done by people who are racists, without realising it’s more of an institutional, structural everyday problem,” he says.

Compared to the US, the reputational, financial and legal stakes for companies in Europe that engage in discriminatory practices are small. After a national boycott of its products in 1996, the US oil company Texaco reached a headline-grabbing, US$176 million settlementwith 1,500 African-American workers who sued the company after tapes emerged in which senior executives used racist language to refer to Black employees.

In Belgium, the temping agency Adecco was found guilty of discrimination against hundreds of applicants on racial grounds after a 14-year legal battle in 2015. It was ordered to pay damages of €50,000 by an appellate court after a lower court initially set the damages at €1.

“I think that’s one of the problems behind the lack of resolve of employers; they don’t feel the pressure on them,” Wrench says. “Although in some countries you might get fines of up to €30,000 or €50,000, most of the time it’s €1,000 or €2,000.”

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Even such smaller legal victories are usually out of reach for most undocumented migrants in Europe, according to the ENAR report. They have the least protection against employers’ discriminatory practices, Olomoofe explains, particularly in eastern Europe.

He notes that even migrants who are given leave to stay in a country, typically don’t get the services and protections they’re entitled to from the state. And so they end up in the informal economy in the worst jobs under the worst conditions.

“They get the last-in, first-out treatment, and they get paid way below minimum wage standards,” he says. “If you would look at this from the proper legal prism, you would say this is labour exploitation. But because of their status, they don’t have access to recourse and that feeds into this climate of impunity. Employers treat them as worthless pieces of shit.”

Women of minority backgrounds also face unique challenges, Nwabuzo says, “because they are at the intersection of discriminations based on gender and race.”

“They face so many barriers not just in terms of the workplace, but in terms of the home life and we need to start addressing these issues in an intersectional way to move these things forwards,” she says.

Nsun, for her part, today works at a cultural centre in Liège, where she launched an 18-month project called Afrofeminism in Progress. She is clear-headed on her difficult job search and the constant racial bias that she says punctuated her study years. “The first generation who migrated [to Europe] tended to swallow everything because they were foreigners, and they needed to carve a space for themselves,” she says. “But their children who grew up here and were told they needed to do everything they could to integrate are starting to speak up.”

Time to get serious

Most experts point out that while anti-discrimination legislation isn’t usually well-enforced in Europe, the laws that do exist are adequate. “What we’ve seen systematically in [the UK], and this probably holds true across Europe, is that we have legislation but it’s the enforcement that is at stake,” says Ashe.

“The business world has had more than 50 years to get its house in order,” he notes, referring to UK’s 1965 adoption of the Race Relations Act. “Racial discrimination in the workplace is so entrenched, so widespread that the orthodox way of thinking about this – which is a non-interventionist, non-regulatory, non-mandatory approach – cannot hold any longer.”

For Ashe, getting tough on employers would mean making it mandatory for companies across all sectors to demonstrate that they actively promote equality and diversity in their staff, compelling them to publish statistics on racial inequality in terms of career progression and pay.

The business perspective tends to be that workplace discrimination is inadmissible and that they oppose any mandatory approach to combat it. A spokesperson for Business Europe, an industry association representing employers in Europe, did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, Wrench warns against lumping employers across the continent together. Employers in countries that joined the EU before 1995 such as Denmark, France and Finland, and that have a longer history of workplace discrimination litigation tend to do better than those in the former socialist and communist countries of central and eastern Europe, he says. Larger, international companies also seem to be doing more to address racial disparities than smaller businesses, he adds.

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