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How ethnic minorities are still discriminated against in the UK job market

Blog • Sociology • Anthony Heath FBA

Britain was one of the first European countries to pass legislation prohibiting racial discrimination. There has been a series of Acts in 1965, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2006 and 2010 which introduced, strengthened and extended measures to prevent discrimination. These Acts responded to the accumulating evidence that migrants, especially those from new Commonwealth countries, had disproportionately high rates of unemployment and disadvantage in the labour and housing markets, and were the victims of racial prejudice and discrimination.

Fifty years of legislation

The 1965 Race Relations Act was a pioneering, but rather cautious, attempt to deal with the problems that minorities (many of whom, such as the Windrush generation, had come from the Caribbean) faced in Britain. The Act made it a civil offence to discriminate on grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origin, in ‘places of public resort’, such as a restaurant. It was criticised at the time for its limited ambitions, and its main value was probably symbolic rather than practical.

The 1965 Act was soon amended by the 1968 Race Relations Act which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. The Act also created the Community Relations Commission to promote harmonious community relations. The 1968 Act was the focus of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘river of blood’ speech, in which he criticised the proposed legislation, declaring that landlords should be free to offer or refuse accommodation to whomever they wished.

Next, the 1976 Act extended the legislation further, introducing the concept of ‘indirect discrimination’ in addition to direct discrimination, and establishing the Commission for Racial Equality, giving it powers to conduct investigations and the objectives of working towards the elimination of discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity. This was followed by the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act, the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, and the 2010 Equality Act.

A handshake at a job interview

Measuring racial discrimination

As well as being a pioneer of anti-discrimination legislation, Britain was also a pioneer in using field experiments to determine whether racial discrimination was actually occurring. In these experiments, fictitious applications are sent to real job adverts. Typically, two or more matched applications are sent containing the same information about the applicant, for example, their education, qualifications and job experience. One purports to have come from a white British applicant, identifiable from a name such as John Robinson, while the other purports to have come from an ethnic minority applicant, with a clearly minority name such as Ahmed Khan.

These field experiments enable us to assess whether the Acts have had the intended effect of reducing the risks of discrimination experienced by ethnic minorities in Britain and whether racial discrimination has declined over time.

The very first study was conducted in 1967 by Political and Economic Planning (PEP). It was a follow-up to a survey of commonwealth migrants, many of whom complained that they had experienced discrimination in looking for jobs. The aim was to verify whether or not these complaints were warranted, so the firms accused of discrimination were investigated. Matched testers applied for jobs at the firms which had been named. Fifteen out of the 40 white testers received a positive response – they were either offered the job or invited to apply – compared with 10 out of the 40 Hungarian testers, but only one out of the 40 West Indian or Asian testers.

The evidence from this study was a significant factor in persuading the Labour government that further legislation was needed, and thus prepared the ground for the 1968 Act. PEP conducted a second field experiment in 1973/4, again showing significant discrimination in the labour market, and this provided an evidence base for the 1976 Act.

Recent studies

The contours of racial discrimination have been remarkably persistent over time. The same pattern found in 1967 persists, with much greater discrimination against non-white minorities with Caribbean or South Asian origins than against white minorities with a European background.

Other field experiments have been conducted subsequently, most recently one in 2016/7 by Valentina Di Stasio and myself at the Centre for Social Investigation, Nuffield College, Oxford. We have also collated all the known field experiments, harmonised the measurements, and tested statistically for trends over time. Unfortunately, we had to exclude the 1967 PEP study from the analysis because it was based on an unrepresentative sample of firms, restricted to those that had been accused of discrimination. But that still leaves us with 13 studies from 1969 until 2017. What we find is that the contours of racial discrimination have been remarkably persistent over time. The same pattern that PEP found in 1967 persists, with much greater discrimination against non-white minorities with Caribbean or South Asian origins than against white minorities with a European background.

The figure below illustrates these trends, showing the discrimination ratios against minorities of Pakistani heritage. In the 1973/4 PEP study, for example, applicants with Pakistani names had to make 1.5 times as many applications as a white British applicant in order to obtain a positive callback from the employer. In our 2016/7 study the ratio was, if anything, slightly larger. There is no sign of any diminution in the risks of discrimination facing job applicants of Pakistani heritage.

 Chart showing trends in job applications from people of Pakistani heritage

Note: the vertical lines indicate the 95% confidence interval around the estimated discrimination ratio.

There is no sign of any diminution in the risks of discrimination facing job applicants of Pakistani heritage.

Looking for change

Does this mean that there has not been any turning point after all? It certainly casts very considerable doubt on the hypothesis that the 1976 or more recent Acts have had any effect, but what about the 1965 and 1968 Acts? While we cannot strictly compare the results of the 1967 and 1973/4 PEP field experiments on discrimination in the labour market because of their different designs, these two early studies did conduct comparable field experiments on discrimination in the housing market. Comparison of the results of the two studies showed that discrimination was considerably lower in 1973/4 than it had been in the 1967 study.

On balance, then, we should conclude that the 1968 Race Relations Act and the pioneering 1967 PEP field experiment, a world-first which paved the way for it, were indeed turning points. But subsequent Acts, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, have made little further progress in combatting racial discrimination. It is time for a new initiative.


Anthony Heath is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Emeritus Fellow and Director of the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1992.

Blog • Sociology • Anthony Heath FBA