The truth about the ethnicity pay gap

We cannot ignore the cultural factors holding back some of our communities.

Rakib Ehsan

Topics Politics UK

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has, for the first time, published a study on Britain’s ethnicity pay gaps.

According to the ONS, the two highest-earning ethnic groups in Britain are people of Chinese or of Indian origin. Their average hourly pay, of £15.75 and £13.47 an hour respectively, even exceeds that earned by those in the white British majority (£12.03 an hour). Meanwhile, the two ethnic groups reporting the lowest levels of pay are those of Pakistani and of Bangladeshi origin (£10 and £9.60 an hour respectively).

Many argue that labour-market discrimination – both racial and religious – is the driving factor behind these disparities. But this misses the wider picture. Most economic inequalities between ethnic groups can be traced back to migratory histories.

Consider the success of Indian migrants. The initial flow of steady Indian migration into the UK started in the 1950s. This flow included a notable number of politically disaffected Punjabi Sikhs and stream of highly educated Gujarati migrants. Many ended up working as medical professionals in the NHS.

In the 1970s, a number of migrants of Indian origin sought refuge in the UK following their expulsion from Uganda. In this period, Indian migration from East Africa also included people fleeing state discrimination in Kenya. The vast proportion of these migrants were well-educated and entrepreneurial. Indeed, following their expulsion from Uganda, the Ugandan economy crumbled under Idi Amin’s dictatorship. Ugandan Indians are now a notable British success story.

In contrast, many of the first Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants to arrive in Britain came from deprived agricultural regions with poor access to education, such as Azad Kashmir in Pakistan and Sylhet in Bangladesh. When they arrived in Britain, settlers from Pakistan and Bangladesh often filled manual jobs, particularly in steel mills and in the textiles industry. Workers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin continue to be relatively concentrated in lower-paid sections of the transport, hospitality and industrial sectors.

Studies suggest that anti-Muslim discrimination continues to persist in the UK labour market. But this does not tell the full story behind the pay gap. There are some very real and problematic cultural barriers that are holding back Britain’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, and ‘discrimination’ is often used to deflect from these issues.

Historically, British Indians also faced discrimination. They had difficulty obtaining employment commensurate with their formal qualifications and were often overlooked in favour of similarly qualified white Brits. But what we might call the ‘British Indian’ socioeconomic model has, over time, as the ONS figures suggest, shown to be a recipe for economic success.

Among British Indians, there is a high proportion of two-income households. These are streamlined family units, in which values of academic excellence, economic self-sufficiency and entrepreneurialism predominate. British Indians are also positive about integration and have developed important links with mainstream British society. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the British public holds such favourable views towards migrants of Indian origin, compared with migrants from other South Asian countries.

It was under this ‘model’ that I was raised. My British Bangla-Indian family was headed by two working parents. They came from Dhaka, an educational hub and the capital of Bangladesh, and from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. My family fostered in me and my sister a dedicated work ethic and a sense of pride in being well educated and economically self-sufficient.

Differences in socioeconomic integration and success between ethnic groups are influenced by a myriad of factors – in particular, the values fostered by parents, attitudes towards education, and what is considered a mark of high status within one’s own ethnic community.

There is far too much political correctness in the debate over disparities between ethnic groups. Yes, labour-market discrimination can be a factor. But Britain’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani minorities are not being held back primarily by the prejudices of white British employers. The reality is far more complicated than that – and we do these communities a disservice by suggesting otherwise.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a spiked columnist and a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Follow him on twitter: @rakibehsan

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Shoshanko Sen

19th July 2019 at 10:48 pm


1. Is Bangladeshi a type of citizenship or ethnicity? I’m saying this because the Constitution of Bangladesh clearly states Bangladesh is the citizenship and Bengali/ Bangalee is the nationality.

2. May be the Indian diaspora are keen to integrate more because they believe Indians and Anglo people are from same human race Aryan? Mr Mohandas Gandhi heavily preached the Aryan brotherhood towards the end of British Raj era.

Christopher Tyson

18th July 2019 at 5:25 pm

They tell us that class is no longer a factor in politics, then they become pre-occupied with income inequality. They can’t have it both ways, accept that class is still a factor, or accept income inequality as a fact of life, the poor are always with us. Income inequality has been turned into a moral issue or a narrow statistical aberration rather than what it is, a fact of economic life. Those who have more than money, who have wealth, pay the salaries of the journalists and academics and opinion formers, and who pays the piper call the tune (clichés are okay when used sparingly). Recently an ex-graduate of made a donation of £100 million to Cambridge University. So who will have a greater influence on our economic life? Autodidact me with my ideas about the behaviourist/phenomenology discussion, or someone who can donate £100 million to Cambridge University (I know what a rhetorical question is professors). Rhetoric aside the concept of the ethnicity pay gap is bogus, disingenuous and politically divisive in too many ways to mention. Ethnic means non white, so this means that white people are paid more than black people. A statistic tells us nothing, it has to be interpreted. Are non whites paid less because they have lower IQs? Wrong answer, the correct answer is that whites are paid more because of racism. The statistics do not show this, this has already been assumed. White people down on their uppers will not take kindly to being blamed for the ethnicity pay gap. This concept turns the working classes against each other, and it does so by racializing economic inequality. Apparently our aristocracy is disproportionately made up of people whose forebears were given property by William The Conquerer, The Norman/Anglo Saxon wealth gap, something must done.

Hana Jinks

20th July 2019 at 9:08 am

Love this post.

Puddy Cat

18th July 2019 at 10:23 am

We overdo the ethnic culture bit. The emphasis on dress, manner and the spoken word in business often come up against insistence on the proclaiming of one’s origins (which at a social gathering may denote colour and as a refreshing view of a person’s origins but in business just gets in the way of transactions where product knowledge and speed of service are greater assets). Businesses have their ethos in their dress and conformity. With the modern mores a white attendant in a shop might be on the end of a few sharp words from a customer, their management will enforce the practice of being deferential (to a point) but with the massive and increasing list of word proscription in the ethnic/racial sphere offence could be just too easy to take. An employer takes you on as their representative and not as the representative of hundreds of years of history, a proselytiser for a faith or as a moraliser.

Secondly the business of naming the origins of the individual as being their identity here is a means by which the person at issue can have a reason for not taking into account all those factors in the first paragraph. Whatever you were you were quite purposeful in giving it up and becoming British and that is now your identity. To enforce the label of origin leads to exception and an unrealistic expectation that whomsoever addresses you will know all the formalities attached to that origin.

While socially those backgrounds might be of endless entertainment and interest, in the closing of a deal or selling shoes it is irrelevant. There is within that the concept of reverse racism. The idea that you being obdurate and staunch in your demand to be that which you once were is something that you are not prepared to put aside at work even though that may be a barrier to your employment no matter what your other gifts.

That the left want to create a menagerie of all the races reaching out, as they tend to do, to ‘save’ people from whatever and therefore build war chest of voters, is the very thing that should be stood against. I wonder how many possibilities of relationships have been thwarted by people representing themselves as colour blind when actually they are presenting a far broader spectrum of colour to observe and accommodate, promoting difference, advantage, all those sub clauses of life in general. A person demanding that the object of their affections does not change is also the person that acts as a sponsor for ethnic intractability. The ways in which we insist on our people clinging to their old lives is obviously infantilising them. Presenting them as charges of some greater morality or masquerading as stalwart friend or ally when British society actually works on the level of people being not being corralled, labelled and made to feel thankful for being that way.

Rakib Ehsan

18th July 2019 at 7:34 am

Morning Winston, thank you for engaging with my article!

Just to address a few points.

Firstly, I am predominantly of Bangladeshi origin and was born, raised and educated in England (you referred to me as “an Indian”).

Using a multitude of government and nationally-representative survey data sources, I have made a number of observations as to why we see such socio-economic disparities between various ethnic groups living in the UK – and yes, I do believe that migratory background and predominating socio-political culture/socio-economic values in the foreign region of origin, also feeds into this.

My article did not identify “culture” as the solitary driving factor behind ethnic-group differences in pay (I have mentioned labour market penalties in the piece) – but to downplay or ignore it as a potentially influential factor is, in my view, irresponsible.

As yes, if we could talk of the general economic success of British Indians at large (in comparison to other groups), socio-economic values, educational ethos, business acumen, all play a part – and I say that as someone of predominantly non-Indian stock.

Hana Jinks

18th July 2019 at 9:13 am

In the nine months that I’ve benn here, you’re the only spiked journalist that has discussed anything btl…this is a great credit to you.

In case you’re not sure, I’m Les Chatte as well. I don’t really have any strong thoughts on this story either way other than to say that…It’s easy for me to say, and it’s probably different in England, but hopefully most westerners don’t really see colour any more. Hopefully this would apply when choosing an employee, as colour really is irrelevant.

I don’t want to say anymore, and I’d prefer that you didn’t even answer as l don’t want the thread derailed with this any more than it has to be. I’ve asked you a few times now about how you see islam as being integratable into western society. I don’t care whether you’re a doctor or not, but this is the question that needs to be answered by muslims on the relevant story.

Are Bangladeshis as hard-line ax pakis? Anyway, these are questions for another day. Once again, thanks.

James Taylor

18th July 2019 at 7:06 am

Anti Muslim bigotry is certainly a genuine problem but it’s not the simplistic racism of the National Front nor the, unseen, omnipotent, omnipresent god of social justice “systemic racism”. It mostly expresses itself in a not wholly irrational fear of Islam as a belief system. Therefore it is not racism (if it were, we could expect equal levels of and concerns about, Sikhophobia and Hinduphobia).

Anti Muslim bigotry comes when rational fears about Islam slip into the place where even someone like Maajid Nawaz is considered a problem. Such people, usually (due to a collision with a very assertive religious culture which transforms their home, jihad, grooming gangs and the credible sense that the establishment is playing favourites for team Muslim against team white working class), reach a place where all Islam is bad. They don’t believe moderation and/or reform is possible. Therefore even a liberal like Maajid Nawaz is suspect. The only palatable Muslim is an ex Muslim. I think Anne Marie Waters and Tommy Robinson fit this bill. My benchmark is whether they think Maajid Nawaz is an ally or a Trojan horse. If he is an ally, you are most likely not anti Muslim. If to you, he is a Trojan horse, you probably have a problem with Muslims.

Such people are not racists as they are happy with Sikhs, Hindus, ex Muslims and black people. So no they’re not racist. But they are suffering from Islam derangement syndrome.

Ultimately such people hold very little power so are unlikely to be running any institutions or industries with which to implement “systemic” oppression/wage or employment discrimination.

As the author rightfully points out, the success of Indians puts to bed the idea that Britain is a hotbed of racism against brown people and that racism explains, the inequality Muslims face.

The challenges Britain (and the wider West) face due to the quite frankly dangerous experiment we are conducting with regards to “super diversity”, mass immigration and our establishment love affair with Islam; are far more complex than the cartoonishly simplistic bogeyman of the white racist root of all evil imagined by the establishment.

In fact, it’s simplistically looking at our increasingly complex situation through the Twentieth Century lens of anti racism, which risks igniting a far right revolution.

The more people like this author, pointing out the flaws in the establishment line, the better.

Keep it up

Hana Jinks

20th July 2019 at 9:04 am

Nawaz IS a t-h if only you could see. He won’t be around forever, but he’s helping have it normalised. The Sikhs didn’t bring an anti-west ideology.

Winston Stanley

18th July 2019 at 2:59 am

“When they arrived in Britain, settlers from Pakistan and Bangladesh often filled manual jobs, particularly in steel mills and in the textiles industry. Workers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin continue to be relatively concentrated in lower-paid sections of the transport, hospitality and industrial sectors.”

That is likely a large part of the explanation. Likely it is a question of working class mobility, or better put, the need to improve the balance of the economy toward higher qualified, better paid employment for everyone. Productivity growth has been downward since the mid 1970s and zero over the past ten years. The economy lacks the investment to implement the R and D that is needed to improve mobility for the country as a whole.

To quantify and understand the disadvantage of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, one would have to compare them with other working class communities in what are historically, predominantly low paid industrial areas of the country, rather than with the national population as a whole. How do their mobility and their wage levels compare with others from similar socio-economic locations and backgrounds?

Lower wages of workers, or less social mobility, cannot be simply attributed to “culture” or to single income families, let alone to the number of kids. Many other families are also single income or have more kids, and indeed that used to be the norm for all families, without any impact on wages or mobility. Indeed, better off families could traditionally afford to be single income and to raise more kids. The issue is not single income families or the number of kids but the need to train and to make better work accessible to communities concentrated in historically low paid industrial areas, be they Pakistani, white or any other.

It might seem a bit off if Rakib, as an Indian, takes it as his crusade to make Pakistani women enter work and to stop them having kids. It might suggest a hint of ethnic animosity? Maybe, maybe not. Sure, Brits tend to have a better image of Indians, but I wonder what response you might get if you asked whether people have as high a regard for Afro-Caribbeans or for London black communities as for Indians. They also do not do so well but that is no reason or excuse to try to stop them from having kids. Otherwise we are back to racial/ ethnic eugenics. Rakib would do well to distance himself from that.

Rakib Ehsan

18th July 2019 at 7:43 am

This is a good piece from Demos Winston, worth a read (and does make mention of the point you make over geographical distribution of ethnic groups across the UK):

This is also an interesting point:

“Research by Anthony Heath et al shows that both Indian Muslims and Pakistani Muslims are much more likely to desire jobs that offer special provision for their religious practice at work, which in turn may further restrict the number of workplaces where they are prepared or able to find employment”

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