Posted on October 19, 2009

Undercover Job Hunters Reveal Huge Race Bias in Britain’s Workplaces

Rajeev Syal, Guardian (Manchester), October 18, 2009

Civil servants created false identities to send CVs [curricula vitae or resumes] to hundreds of employers in sting to uncover discrimination

A government sting operation targeting hundreds of employers across Britain has uncovered widespread racial discrimination against workers with African and Asian names.

Researchers sent nearly 3,000 job applications under false identities in an attempt to discover if employers were discriminating against jobseekers with foreign names. Using names recognisably from three different communities–Nazia Mahmood, Mariam Namagembe and Alison Taylor–false identities were created with similar experience and qualifications. Every false applicant had British education and work histories.

They found that an applicant who appeared to be white would send nine applications before receiving a positive response of either an invitation to an interview or an encouraging telephone call. Minority candidates with the same qualifications and experience had to send 16 applications before receiving a similar response.

The alarming results have prompted Jim Knight, the employment minister, to consider barring companies that have been found to have discriminated against employees from applying for government contracts.

“We suspected there was a problem. This uncovers the shocking scale of it,” he said. “Candidates with an Asian or African name face real discrimination and this has exposed the fact that companies are missing out on real talent.”

Researchers from the National Centre for Social Research, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pension (DWP), sent three different applications for 987 actual vacancies between November 2008 and May 2009. Nine occupations were chosen, ranging from highly qualified positions such as accountants and IT technicians to less well-paid positions such as care workers and sales assistants.

All the job vacancies were in the private, public and voluntary sectors and were based in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. The report, to be released tomorrow, concludes that there was no plausible explanation for the difference in treatment found between white British and ethnic minority applicants other than racial discrimination.

It also finds that public sector employers were less likely to have discriminated on the grounds of race than those in the private sector.

One reason for this discrepancy, according to the conclusion, is the use of standard application forms in the public sector which hide or disguise the ethnicity of an applicant. The research is also understood to have found that larger employers were less likely to discriminate than small employers.

Researchers have refused to release the names of the guilty employers, but it is expected that they will be contacted to let them know they had been targeted.

The report has been welcomed by senior race advisers as evidence of discrimination in the job market. Iqbal Wahhab, chair of the Ethnic Minority Advisory Group, which proposes policy changes for the government on race and employment, said: “The evidence of the DWP report is unquestionable–we live in a society where racial discrimination systematically occurs and currently goes in the main unchallenged.” Wahhab, an entrepreneur, said that the employers should not be “named and shamed” but persuaded to change.

“The employers who fell foul of the DWP CV test are not bigots–they are business people. I don’t suggest we slap injunctions on them and probably not even name and shame them, but instead we should help them understand that their current practices mean they are not fit to supply big customers like government departments,” he said.

The findings echo the experience of black and Asian jobseekers contacted this weekend. James Nkwacha, 28, a physics graduate whose family are from Nigeria, said he has applied for 60 jobs this year but had only two replies. “The jobs are within my range. I am qualified for them. But for some reason I have been overlooked,” he said.

Navdeep Sethia, 24, an unemployed architecture graduate from Chalk Farm, central London, has submitted more than 400 job applications, but has only heard back from 40 employers and has had fewer than 20 interviews.

“I personally feel that my foreign-sounding name makes a lot of difference. I am sure employers think of Southall when they see my name and that is enough for them to put my application aside,” he said.

Peter Luff, the Conservative chairman of the Commons business, innovation and skills select committee, praised the survey as a worthwhile exercise–as long as the companies that have been targeted were not exposed to public ridicule.

“The conclusions are indeed deeply disturbing and indicate the probability of significant discrimination which will have to be analysed closely once the full report is released this week,” he said. “I think this was a good exercise by the government, and on balance was worth the money.”

Abigail Morris, employment policy adviser to the British Chambers of Commerce, said the research was flawed. “There are limitations to the results. The researchers only used nine occupations, and I am not sure that the number of replies they received is a representative sample. We are concerned that the results will be interpreted to say that most employers are racist, whereas they prove no such thing.”

Morris also questioned whether the government should be involved in using a “sting operation” to uncover racism in the middle of a recession and whether it was worth the money. “Business is struggling with the worst recession for a generation. Is this really the time to be wasting government resources and the time of hard-pressed companies with fake CVs?” she asked.