So the ethnicity pay gap is over? If only things were that simple

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Halima Begum. Guardian October 2020

Grave disparities remain, with minority workers still far more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid, precarious work

A Deliveroo rider cycling through central London.

A Deliveroo rider cycling through central London. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesThu 15 Oct 2020 16.19 BST

The publication of figures from the Office for National Statistics this week could have been seen as a rare moment of encouraging news. The ethnicity pay gap in England and Wales stands at just 2.3%, the narrowest since the ONS began collecting data in 2012. In the 16- to 29-year-old category, ethnic minority workers are even out-earning their white British peers.

The broad gains have led some in the British media to herald “the end of the ethnicity pay gap”, traducing the data and diminishing the issue to a “white v other” scrap among workers. The MailOnline’s dog-whistling headline – “Young employees from minority groups now earn MORE than white British workers” – is emblematic.

This narrative is dangerous and misleading. Whether it is intentional or not, pitting the dominant ethnic group against minorities ignores systemic disadvantages between and within communities. Ethnic minorities are around twice as likely to be unemployed as their white British peers. Once in employment, ethnic minorities are also 47% more likely to be on zero-hour contracts in the gig economy, and are therefore less likely to benefit from basic legal protections in the workplace.

What the latest ONS figures do make clear is that the strides made towards pay parity are often based on higher levels of academic attainment among second and third generation migrants. As Bangladeshi kids growing up on an east London council estate in the 1990s, we were constantly told by our parents: “You will have to prove you are at least twice as good as your white peers ever to land a job.” Today, a third of British Indians are classified as “professional”, and almost 60% have a degree, exceeding their white British peers.

Similar figures pertain to the British Chinese community. Success in the classroom has helped youngsters land a crucial first foot on the employment ladder on the basis of merit, in a world where good employers are more aware than ever of equitable and transparent recruitment processes.Pay gap between ethnic minority and white staff smallest since 2012, says ONSRead more

However, the fact remains that when we compare workers with the same qualifications or experience – say a general office worker of Bangladeshi heritage and a white British peer – the person of colour is still likely to earn significantly less.

The headline figures also appear to smooth over the impact of class and other socio-economic factors on the survey, leaving us to extrapolate conclusions from the earnings data of, say, a white British Uber driver alongside those of our British Punjabi chancellor of the exchequer. Given Rishi Sunak is a former investment banker whose father-in-law is one of the world’s richest men, such a standardised approach to the data, and its conclusions, raises as many questions as it answers.

And while the rightwing press is correct to point out in a scarcely credulous tone that British Indian and Chinese workers earn a combined average of 19.3%more than their white British peers, invisible factors such as structural racism and latent Islamophobia are simply not capable of being measured in any survey format. This might go some way to explaining why Pakistanis are now the lowest paid ethnic group in the country, earning 16% less than their white British peers despite higher levels of academic attainment.

Rather than using the ONS data to divide us, as workers we must stand together to address such discrepancies. Whether white British, black or minority ethnic, we are all beholden to the same person – our employer – and our mantra must always be, “Equal pay for equal work”.

Absolute transparency around remuneration is the only way to achieve this goal. Here, the introduction of mandatory gender pay gap reporting under the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 is instructive. As organisations such as the BBC have found to their cost, failing to address the historical remuneration bias towards men is a surefire way to incur the wrath of both serving staff and the public.

But the government has failed to make the ethnicity pay gap report mandatory, effectively ignoring numerous important reviews and consultations, including the 2017 McGregor-Smith review, which found racism affects ethnic minority workers in every aspect of the labour market. Encouragingly, some progressive businesses have chosen not to wait for the government to legislate. Zurich UK published its own ethnicity pay gap review in July 2020, and has been able to monitor equality in terms of pay variables all the way to the boardroom.

Regardless of the narrowing ethnicity pay gap, the fact remains that minority communities are over-represented in low-paid jobs and the gig economy. The pay and employment prospects of minority workers will be disproportionately and detrimentally impacted by the pandemic. As a result, we must remain vigilant. Otherwise, the positive change that monitoring the ethnicity pay gap can bring about will simply be nudged into the distant future.

• Halima Begum is director of the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust

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