Opinion: Job market discrimination

POSTED: 06/1/14 11:55 PM

The job market is a volatile place, especially when you are looking in from the outside. How do you convince employers that you are the best candidate for vacancy X? The phenomenon of job market discrimination is not alien to the Netherlands, or to any other place in the world including St. Maarten. If you are born in the wrong place, as we have had to note so sadly recently, you may be left out in the cold no matter how qualified you are.

Last week, Minister Lodewijk Asscher (Social Affairs and Labor) presented measures to Parliament to combat discrimination in the labor market. But these measures will not contribute substantially to a solution. That is the opinion of sociology researcher Lieselotte Blommaert and sociology professor Frank van Tubergen – both working at the University Utrecht – and Marcel Coenders, lecturer in cultural diversity and youth.

When the Social Cultural Planning Bureau released data showing high unemployment among non-western immigrants in the Netherlands, Minister Asscher promised “a sturdy package of measures.” Another reason for Asscher to spring into action was the internal email Jeffrey Koorndijk received by mistake about a company’s reason not to hire him. The email flatly state that Koorndijk was not fit for the job because he was “a dark colored negro.”

We remember the restlessness at the police force when the country was looking for a successor for Chief Commissioner Derrick Holiday. On the first floor of the police station in Philipsburg, members of the force plastered a picture of the famous Black Power salute by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Smith, de 200-meter winner that year and bronze medalist Carlos made a statement that has lost none of its significance during the 45 years that have passed since that moment.

The police force preferred an Antillean – and if possible a local – successor to Holiday. Instead, the selection committee presented the current chief, Dutchman Peter de Witte. The unions agreed wholeheartedly with the appointment, because De Witte was simply the best man for the job.

As we all know by now, it does not always work that way. Not here, not in the Netherlands, and not anywhere else. The Dutch cabinet wants to tackle this thorny issue with a five-pronged approach: enforcement, reporting and registration, knowledge and awareness, diversity policy and research.

The critics mentioned earlier in this article say there are three problems with this approach. Considering the existing knowledge about job market discrimination the effect of the government’s actions will be limited, they point out.

The stricter enforcement (of anti-discrimination policies) means that government contracts with companies that discriminate are terminated and that those companies are excluded from future public tenders.

That only works, the critics say, when discrimination victims report more frequently what they have to endure. The web tool the cabinet has in mind to direct victims to the correct address for filing their complaint assumes that people know when they have been discriminated. That is not realistic. Applicants almost never find out whether ethnicity is the reason they have not been invited for a job interview. Employers will not use that as a reason and internal emails seldom end up with applicants.

The limited number of reports about discrimination is therefore not the result of a low willingness to report or unfamiliarity with procedures; they are the result of the hidden nature of discrimination itself. When discrimination comes to the surface, the effects are potentially dramatic, as St. Maarten has recently experienced with the refusal to appoint Lars de Vries as the successor to notary Henri Parisius.

The three critics note that most cases of discrimination go unnoticed. The perspective of heavier punishment is hardly reason for employers to change their behavior because chances of getting caught are extremely low.

Measures to improve knowledge and awareness are too non-committal and completely dependent on the good will of employers, while they are the party that suffers the least from discrimination. Without additional incentives, the critics expect little from employers in this respect.

The decision to do more research assumes, incorrectly, that there is little knowledge about job market discrimination in the Netherlands. The critics say this is not so, at least not where discrimination of immigrants is concerned.

The proposal to figure out via online application platforms how employers react to CVs with different personality characteristics is obsolete – because it already exists. The critics have been doing this research since 2011. They published an article about it in the journal Social Forces. It shows that native applicants have a 60 percent higher chance at an invitation for a job interview than applicants with a Moroccan background.

The research also showed that many employers do not look at the complete CV of migrant-applicants. As soon as they see a Moroccan name, they put the application aside. The critics say that their research confirms earlier findings by Professor Frank Bovenkerk and the Social Cultural Planning Bureau. Charting the territory is obsolete – it has already been done more than once.

The critics did not only criticize in a column they published in the Volkskrant and that forms the basis for this article. They also presented alternative solutions. They suggest to base selection procedures no longer on stereotypes but on individual competencies. Formulating clear selection criteria beforehand, standardizing the selection procedure and publishing diversity data would help.

Another option the critics suggest is applying anonymously. A recent experiment in Germany established without a shadow of a doubt that this diminishes the chance of discrimination based on ethnicity. Large companies like Deutsche Post DHL and L’Oréal Deutschland cooperated with the project. The critics note that the anonymous application procedure is unmentionable in the Netherlands and that it has never been the subject of serious research.

An argument against this system is that employers could begin discriminating at a later stage in the selection process. However, this only happens when the most important reason for discrimination is a strong aversion to ethnic minorities. This is not the case. Research shows that employers often discriminate unconsciously and unintentionally. A study the critics published in 2012 in Social Science Research proves that this is also the case in the Netherlands.

Another argument against anonymous application procedures is practicability. The critics note that this cannot be decisive either. Many applications are done via the internet and adjusting websites is relatively simple and sustainable.

The conclusion: it is about time for serious research into measures that really work – like introducing the anonymous application procedure. That could have made all the difference for the late Lars de Vries.

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