Black man's burden in Ireland: "the Irish people are extremely ethnocentric and are not open to difference and this prejudicial behaviour is also reflected in the reluctance of employers to engage with blacks in the labour market. Over one quarter of the black population in Ireland are unemployed," reports Edorodion Osa from Dublin.THE IRISH SOCIOECONOMIC THINK-TANK, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), recently conducted a study on the experiences of black and other ethnic minority groups in the Irish labour market, with startling findings. Black people in Ireland are nine times more likely to be unemployed than their white Irish counterparts, apart from facing discrimination in access to employment.
It was a cold, wet and blustery morning at Dublin Airport and I had just arrived on an early bird flight from London Stansted. I produced a card from my wallet and dialled the telephone number on it. It was the telephone number of a cab company. Fifteen minutes later, a young man, probably in his early thirties, walked up to me and introduced himself as Thabo (not his real name), the taxi driver.
As we drove down the MI, towards the M50, he told me he was originally from South Africa but had been settled in Ireland with his wife and children for the past 10 years. Thabo said he has a bachelor of engineering degree in electronics from a South African university but found it difficult to get a job as Irish employers did not like qualifications obtained in Africa.
He said he applied for several jobs without success, and in frustration, he had to go back to an Irish university to study for another degree in electronics engineering. He graduated two years ago but since then, his jobhunting story has remained the same.
Thabo's experience in the labour market is certainly a familiar ringtone in the ears of many black people in Ireland, a country where the culture of "doing things the Irish way" is deeply entrenched and where, until recently, the ethic of "doing business with your own kind" has never been problematic.
It also illustrates the enormity of the social barrier they face in their efforts to participate in the socioeconomic space of a society that has been moulded in the image of a nation of homogeneous white Catholics with a distinct cultural identity.
Among other findings of the ESRI's research, even when in employment, black people in Ireland are less likely to secure high level professional and managerial positions, and are more likely to be abused in the workplace.
A separate piece of research carried out by WRC Consulting, a management consulting group, in collaboration with the Office of the Minister for Integration, reaffirmed the ESRI findings. The research revealed that while there is a high unemployment rate amongst other ethnic minority groups in relation to whites, black people are the most disproportionately unemployed in relation to all other ethnic groups, and are more likely to be found doing jobs that are below their qualification and skills levels. Furthermore, it found out that black people find public sector jobs particularly inaccessible and that Irish employers' practices tend to be racist towards them. Over one quarter of the black population in the country are unemployed, according to the 2006 Census, the most recent headcount in Ireland.
Eric Yao, the coordinator of the Africa Centre, a Dublin-based NGO which promotes the interests of people of African descent in Ireland, says the grim picture only reflected the plight of black people in the Celtic Tiger years when Ireland enjoyed unprecedented economic growth.
Now, Yao says, their situation is even more precarious as Irish employers use the current global recession to get rid of the few black people who were able to secure employment during the boom years.
"Black people have become the easy target. Africa Centre has been inundated with unemployed Africans looking for work. They are more likely to be the first to go when companies are shedding jobs as a result of the global credit crunch and they are more likely to suffer racism in the workplace than any other group."
Yao says that before he became the coordinator of the Africa Centre, he applied for several jobs without success. Originally from Ghana, he was initially prohibited from employment as he was a spouse of a non-EU doctor.
When the law was later amended to allow spouses of non-EU doctors access to employment, he did not even get shortlisted for any interview despite having a Masters degree in International Relations and years of experience working at the United Nations.
"Irish employers look at your name and your nationality on your CV and when they are not Irish, you don't stand any chance," Yao says.
"When I got Irish citizenship, I changed my nationality, and because my name does not easily show me as an African, I got shortlisted for many jobs within a short space of time. But when I appeared at the interviews, I drew reactions from people who were surprised at a black man claiming to be Irish.
"I remember one particular interview where I was asked 'why do you claim to be Irish when you are black?' There is discrimination in Ireland and the Irish are learning to live and deal with a large population of people of different ethnicities for the first time."
During the boom years, the Fianna Fail Party led a coalition government that enunciated several integration policies based on "interculturalism", a concept predicated on the cross-fertilisation of the various cultures in Ireland and which encourages a two-way learning process between the dominant white Irish culture and the emerging ethnic minority cultures.
Policies encouraging members of ethnic minorities to participate in the civic and democratic processes were put in place, while regulations to mainstream service delivery were also created.
Entry requirements into the police force were amended to attract people from ethnic minority backgrounds and local authorities were funded to initiate, support and encourage integration activities at local levels. Sports bodies were also given financial boosts in order to attract talented youth from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
While John Curran, the minister charged with the responsibility of coordinating integration policies and programmes, was keen to enumerate these policy objectives and highlight their importance, at the last annual general meeting of the European Jesuit Refugee Service, some ethnic minority-led organisations cast doubts over government's commitment to implementing them. They also question the political will to economically empower blacks and other ethnic minority groups.
"Those policies were formulated without due consultations with ethnic minority organisations," says Yao. "Some time ago, I was invited to an anti-racism ceremony and I was presented with a policy document. My first question was 'what was the input of members of ethnic minorities into this policy document?' They could not provide any answer. The government is now focused on steering the economy out of recession so integration and ethnic empowerment have been relegated to the backburner."
He says that as one way of stemming black unemployment, the Africa Centre has designed a training programme to assist black people who have lost their jobs and those who have been unemployed long term to set up their own businesses.
"We get them together; look at their CVs and their educational qualifications and skills," says Yao. "We then identify those with the necessary skills and business ideas and we link them to where they can get financial support and help on how to manage their businesses. We have already had the first session and we are now preparing for the next one to be held soon."
Attempts to find out the government's plan to address the disproportionately high rate of black unemployment from Curran were unsuccessful. Instead, he said issues relating to employment should be addressed to the Department of Employment, Trade and Enterprise, a department which does not have jurisdiction over people settled in Ireland but which only has the remit to issue work permits to non-EEA citizens wishing to work in the country.
However, Mary Corcoran, a migration expert and professor of urban sociology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, says access to opportunity structures should be made available to all on an equal basis regardless of ethnicity and that includes access to meaningful employment opportunities for blacks.
"If Ireland is to thrive in a globalised economy, it has to learn to deal with the 'other' and move beyond blatant racism," she says. "Irish people are extremely ethnocentric and are not open to difference and this prejudicial behaviour is also reflected in the reluctance of employers to engage with blacks in the labour market."
She says there is tremendous racialisation of economic opportunities and employers always advantage white over black candidates in the labour market.
Black people, she points out, are the most disadvantaged because they are seen as the most different and their names are always a signifier for Irish employers to discriminate against them.
Corcoran says the economic recession has further reinforced the "other" by creating a "drawbridge mentality" where the Irish have become increasingly concerned about "our own". "Our own," she stresses, "becomes increasingly narrowly defined as white vs others, but they have to learn how to be colour blind when dealing with people and that includes Irish employers. Ireland should also avoid the pitfall of creating neighbourhoods along the lines of ethnicity and social class. For example, it should not make social housing exclusively for blacks and other ethnic minorities as that could lead to social stigmatisation."
While it is obvious that there are policies and legislation put in place to address economic and social inequalities in Ireland, there seems to be no urgency to implement them soon. In the words of Corcoran: "The Irish have to quickly learn how not to marginalise people of colour and migrants in order to avoid potential social problems in the future."