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Black youth unemployment rate of 40% similar to time of Brixton riots, data shows

Tobi Thomas
·5-min read

Young black workers have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic, according to Guardian analysis, with more than 40% unemployed – three times worse than white workers of the same age.

Forty years on from the Brixton riots, which spread across the UK during a recession in which black people lost their jobs in disproportionate numbers, experts are warning that coronavirus has exposed deep-rooted inequalities that still exist in the employment market.

The black youth unemployment rate was the same in the last quarter of 2020 as in the early 1980s, around the time the riots took place.

Related: Brixton riots 40 years on: ‘A watershed moment for race relations’

Between October and December 2020, 41.6% of black people aged 16-24 were unemployed – the highest rate since the last financial crisis, Guardian analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals. Unemployment among white workers of the same age stood at to 12.4%.

Before the pandemic, between January and March 2020, 10.6% of young white people were unemployed compared with 25.3% of young black people. Nine months later, the unemployment rate among young black people had shot up by 64.4% compared with 17% for their white counterparts, the ONS figures show.

The data comes less than two weeks after the release of the government’s widely derided race disparity report, which provoked a backlash from critics who accused it of downplaying racism in the UK.

The study said the pay gap between minority ethnic and white workers was at its lowest level in almost a decade, at 2.3%, and that over the past 50 years several minority ethnic groups had made exceptional progress in the UK – a focus that critics argued failed to acknowledge institutional and structural racism in the UK labour market.

Employment disparity - graphic

Young black people were bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic crisis in the same way they did in the early 80s, early 90s and after the financial crash, said Prof Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester.

Like then, there was a high risk of “hyper-cyclical unemployment” for young black people, which would cause rates of unemployment to rise much higher and stay much longer for ethnic minorities than white people, he said.

“Removing barriers to employment is a most urgent task for achieving social equality, and this calls on determined and concerted efforts from the government, employers and the whole society,” said Li, an expert in social mobility and employment.

Experts fear a return to the significant employment inequality faced by young black people in the 1980s, when the black youth unemployment rate doubled over a short period of time. In 1981, the year of the Brixton riots, 17.2% of young white people were unemployed, compared with 18.7% of young black people, according to analysis of the General Household Survey by Li. But in 1982, the rate shot up to 41.8% for young black people compared with 22.9% for their white counterparts.

The ONS said the data was weighted to official population projections from 2018, contained estimates of the number of 16- to 24-year-olds in the labour market and was not seasonally adjusted, while noting that demographic breakdowns reduced sample sizes.

Sarah Arnold, a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation, said young minority ethnic workers were already disproportionately likely to be in less secure employment before the pandemic, such as zero-hours or fixed-term contracts, or cash in hand employment with little or no contractual security.

“These kinds of jobs have received less protection from schemes like furlough, and it is likely this has contributed to unemployment rising much faster among these groups compared to both young white workers and the population as a whole,” Arnold said.

“For this reason, far more comprehensive job and income protection schemes are needed, like the New Economics Foundation’s recent proposals to reform sick pay and universal credit into a minimum income guarantee, as part of a package ensuring everyone has access to a living income.”

Halima Begum, the director of the Runnymede Trust, said she was “absolutely appalled” by the figures. “They don’t just reconfirm that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on our [young] black and ethnic minority communities. They confirm that the government has completely abrogated its duty of care, in particular to black British families and their children,” she said.

The government urgently needed to acknowledge major “employment fragility” in ethnic minority communities, and take concrete steps to address the issue, she added.

“These data leave little doubt that, without government intervention, the post-Covid recovery process for our black and ethnic minority communities will inevitably be delayed,” she said. “The government needs to look at this data, to understand the terrible realities that they represent for our ethnic minority communities, and to take all necessary steps to level up society equitably as the country reopens.”

Youth unemployment figures are considerably higher than those for all ages. The unemployment rate for black workers aged 16 and over stood at 7.6% for October to December 2020, and for white workers the figure stood at 4.5%.

A government spokesperson said: “Before the pandemic we had made solid progress on lifting the employment rate to a record high for ethnic minorities, helping close the unemployment gap, and we remain committed to these efforts.

“Our Plan for Jobs is playing an important role in giving young people from all backgrounds a helping hand on their journey back to employment, whether it’s creating over 150,000 jobs through the Kickstart Scheme … or by recruiting an extra 13,500 new Work Coaches.”