When Gopal Singh applied for a job as a hotel receptionist last month, the interviewer asked him a question that put him on edge: “How do I know if I give you the job that you won’t go back to your home country within six months?”
For Gopal, who had emigrated from India to the UK as a young child, this was a blatant case of racial discrimination. It was the 61st job he had applied for since being let go as a night porter at the start of the pandemic and it made him wonder what part racism had played in his failure to land a job.
Gopal’s story stood out because it was an example of blatant racial discrimination whereas most racial discrimination is rarely able to be identified as the reason for the failure to get hired. Almost all the jobless black and Asian youth we spoke to as part of our joint Independent and Evening Standard investigation into unemployment could never be sure of the reason they had been unable to land a job.
A 2019 study by the Centre for Social Investigation at Oxford University’s Nuffield College revealed that ethnic minority applicants have to send 60 per cent more applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts. Other curriculum vitae studies have shown that the “ethnic penalty” may be even higher.
But whether the racism is overt, hidden from sight or masquerades as unconscious bias, the fact is that more than 37 per cent of economically active black Londoners aged 16-24 are jobless, compared to the average rate of 11.7 per cent of youth countrywide. Today we speak to two young black Londoners who are part of this disturbing jobless statistic and have powerful stories to tell – yet cannot be certain what role their ethnicity has played, if any, in their failure to get hired.
In the first 19 years of her life, Tamika has had to overcome more disadvantages than many people face in a lifetime. Brought up in a single-parent household in north London, the eldest of three children, Tamika would often awake in the morning to a note left by her mother saying she had “gone away for a few days” – leaving her, at age 13, to wake her siblings, prepare breakfast, and walk them to school. Her preparations for GCSEs were severely disrupted by having to leave school early to pick up her siblings from primary school because her mother had “gone off again”. By 16, life with her dysfunctional – and sometimes physically violent – mother had become so intolerable that she was taken into care.
Tamika would argue that all this “life experience” has made her into a resilient young woman ready for the world and when you meet her, you are immediately struck by how bright, vivacious and positive she is – despite making more than 50 unsuccessful job applications in the last two years.
Recently though, Tamika endured an interview to work in an Italian restaurant that left her fuming. “I arrived for the interview keen to make a good impression, but it soon became apparent that the guy was more interested in propositioning me than hiring me. He started to ask me weird questions about whether I was single and available and details about my last relationship. I suddenly realised that instead of interviewing me, he was coming onto me. I made my excuses and left.”
That interview aside, it is hard to know whether Tamika’s ethnicity – born in London of Caribbean descent – or gender has been a limiting factor in her failure to find employment “because in most cases you apply but never hear back”.
She said: “I live in a small room in shared accommodation with no space for a desk so I do applications from my bed. All the jobs I apply for, I either get an automated message saying “sorry, you were unsuccessful” or I hear nothing at all, so I have no clue why I have not succeeded and whether I have lost out to genuinely more experienced candidates or not.”
Stylishly dressed in distressed jeans and softly spoken, Tamika added: “After GCSEs, of which I passed only three and failed English and Maths, I did level 2 and 3 hairdressing at Uxbridge College to become a stylist. Then Covid hit. I’ve applied for loads of jobs including hairdressing jobs but haven’t got anywhere. I don’t know why. Of my 10 friends who did hairdressing, three have got jobs. Recently I have been broadening out and applying for anything, including warehouse and restaurant work, but still, no progress to report.”
Tamika scored two in-person interviews, including the disastrous one at the pizza restaurant, and one phone interview with Amazon to work night shifts in their warehouse. “I never heard back from any of them,” she said.
How has she been? “It affects a lot of things, not just your self-esteem. You have no money so you don’t go out with friends as much, so you feel more isolated and that makes you a bit depressed. I try to stay hopeful and tell myself that nobody’s life is perfect and that my future will be good. I will do all the crappy jobs nobody wants just to get on the first rung so I can be somebody and earn money and feel good. When I left college, I never thought it would be so hard to get work. I just need someone to believe in me and give me that first step.”
Tyrone did well in his GCSEs, scoring six Bs and 3 Cs, and he went to university to study sports science but dropped out because “it wasn’t for me”. The black British 22-year-old, brought up by a disabled single mother in a low-income west London household, preferred to start earning than rack up loans. So he secured barista work for £9.50 an hour and pursued his passion as a rap artist. But a year later Covid hit and after being furloughed, he was laid off. He hasn’t worked in 19 months.
“I thought that because I was smart at school, the world was my oyster and I would quickly get on the career ladder, but it’s not been that easy,” he said. “I have made over 30 job applications since lockdown eased and have managed to get just five interviews, mostly over Zoom, but no jobs.”
He added: “After the interview, I always feel like I’ve messed up, like I am an idiot.” Asked if ethnicity was a factor, he shrugged. “It’s difficult to read the room because it’s not face-to-face but it often feels like there is some sort of hidden barrier. I don’t know if that’s because it’s over Zoom but I take the view that my problem is that I lack interview skills and don’t always prepare well. I tend to blame myself.”
The process of being unemployed and stuck at home for so long during Covid had impacted “his personality”, he said. “I used to be more outgoing and confident and optimistic, but the constant failure has made me more of a loner. I felt like I had nothing to say to friends. I kept away.”
It led to a lack of routine and a loss of self-discipline. “I started to stay up very late watching movies and playing Fifa on PlayStation, sometimes until 4am. I would wake up at lunchtime time feeling like sh** and lacking motivation. I would look at my sister who studied medicine and my friends who went to uni and I would feel life was passing me by.”
To keep his spirits up and break out of this negative cycle, Tyrone started to go for early morning walks and volunteering as a youth worker. “Nature was my helper. I started waking up early and getting out for a walk and a workout in the park. I feel I am back on a good path.”
His dream career is to make it in the music business “or help elevate other artists”, but he has learned that he loves youth work and is seeking a job in that field. “You forget what it’s like to feel effective,” he said. “I never thought it would be this crazy hard.”
Names have been changed
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