Are ethnic minorities at a disadvantage in the labor market?

Edition 30 September, by Geetanjali Gupta

Imagine dreaming of a big future with a great job and financial freedom, only to realize that it will not be that easy. The wait for that phone call or email, inviting you for a job interview, seems endless. The reason: your ethnicity does not match the preferences of the employer. While this reason would never be cited explicitly, there may not be any other possible explanation. Unfortunately, discrimination and prejudice based on ethnicity are a global reality. And ethnic minorities in the Netherlands are no exception. According to a study by The Research Center for Education and Labor Market (ROA) at Maastricht University, second-generation immigrant youths find it more difficult to get a job than their Dutch counterparts and are three times more likely to become unemployed. While the numbers don’t look good, what is worse is that they have not changed much over the years. A survey done in 2014 yielded similar results. A look into the process leading up to employment is quite revealing. Partiality starts early on – Even though most non-western immigrants belong to the second generation, there is a bias against them, starting with internship opportunities. According to the study, while 68% of native Dutch students secure an internship in their first attempt, the number drops to less than 50 % for non-western students. Moreover, almost one in four minority students has to apply at least four times to be successful, compared to only one in ten of their Dutch counterparts. This result was based on a survey of 70,000 mbo graduates.

The reality behind the rose-tinted glasses of equality and fairness is not so rosy. Schools in the municipality of Ede are no longer attempting to offer immigrant youths an internship, because they know that many companies have religion-based preferences. According to Elakil Benmessaoud, chairman of the Ede Advisory Council on Participation and Integration, “there is no company that says openly: ‘I do not want immigrants’. But if you, as a company, consistently reject immigrant interns, there will come a time when schools will no longer try to accommodate an immigrant student there.” And the problem does not end there. There is a high probability that interns from ethnic minorities either don’t receive any remuneration, or are paid less. Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven has called this “an unacceptable situation.” She supports measures to combat this situation, such as company visits in which companies and students get to know each other, along with training sessions to create more awareness and sensitivity.

Are employment agencies partly to blame? One recent survey by tv show Radar came to a damning conclusion. It showed that many employment agencies are supporting discrimination. In an attempt to understand their mentality, eighty temporary employment agencies were called and asked if they would consider employers’ requests to exclude certain ethnic minorities, based on their stereotypical image and prior bad experiences, before forwarding applications for job opportunities. Almost fifty percent answered, “sure.” State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment, Tamara van Ark, finds this situation “completely unacceptable.” In a strongly worded letter to the House of Representatives, she writes, “it destroys future dreams and ensures that ambition ends in frustration and that talent is wasted.” She states further, “the consequences of discrimination on the labor market are great for people who are personally affected and that it is disastrous for social cohesion in the Netherlands.” The College of Human Rights is ‘baffled’. What is particularly striking to the Chairperson of the College, Adriana van Dooijeweert, is that temp agencies know that discrimination is illegal, but still accede to the request. The umbrella organisation for temp agencies, NBBU, also categorically states that ‘discrimination is punishable and unethical, so you may never comply with such a request.’

Corrective measures- As the surveys have brought out some harsh realities, the government and various organisations are taking a deeper look to curb the problem effectively. Some have even suggested naming the employment agencies involved, so they can be shamed publicly. While consensus has not been achieved on this, there is an agreement that the Labor Market Discrimination Action Plan should be followed up. It states, among other things, how discrimination on the basis of background or religion can be tackled in application procedures. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment is also actively calling on victims to file a report, as there is a team in place for tackling discrimination. It is also in favour of information campaigns to make employers aware of unjustified prejudices they may hold. Are there other reasons? While some argue that the wide gap in opportunities between Dutch people and immigrants is solely due to discrimination, it is prudent to take into account certain other factors too. Employer organizations VNO-NCW and MKB-Nederland acknowledge that discrimination occurs, but their own research has shown that sometimes the education pathway chosen by immigrants from non-western countries creates comparatively lower job prospects. Moreover, because of poor networking skills and a lack of integration, these students miss out on internship chances. Their lack of readiness to reach out or ask for help also results in missed chances.

The lead researcher of ROA, Christoph Meng, accepts that never before has so much emphasis been placed on understanding the possible causes of this phenomenon. Hopefully, this attention can lead to concrete measures to bridge the gaps and change the mindsets of employers, so that the statistics of future surveys will tell a better story.