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14 November 2022

What does sociological research tell us about ethnic inequalities in European labour markets?

In the past decades, Western European societies have become increasingly diverse due to international migration. In countries such as Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, immigrants and their children constitute around 20–30% of the current population. Their immigrant populations are highly diverse in terms of national origin, period of arrival, migration motive, schooling, religion and race. To illustrate, the Netherlands has attracted immigrants from its former colonies Indonesia, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles; low-skilled ‘guest workers’ from Turkey and Morocco; refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Syria; and EU labour migrants, such as from Poland and Bulgaria.

A key topic in sociology of migration is the study of the integration of immigrants and their offspring in the host country (Gordon, 1964; Alba and Nee, 2003). Sociologists treat ‘integration’ as a multidimensional concept, differentiating between patterns of social, cultural and structural/economic integration (Jonsson, Kalter and Van Tubergen, 2018). Social integration refers to the degree of intergroup cohesion between members of different ethnic groups and is studied empirically by looking at interethnic attitudes and prejudice (Schlueter and Scheepers, 2010), cross-ethnic friendships (Smith, Maas and Van Tubergen, 2014; Kruse and Kroneberg, 2019) and intermarriage (Kulu and González-Ferrer, 2014). Cultural integration captures the degree of similarity between ethnic minority and majority groups in their opinions, norms and corresponding practices. Research in this field focuses, for example, on language acquisition (Kosyakova, Kristen and Spörlein, 2022), religiosity (Voas and Fleischmann, 2012) and cultural values (Röder and Mühlau, 2014). Regarding structural integration – i.e. the degree of similarity between ethnic minority and majority groups in realising valued goals – sociologists investigate ethnic inequalities in education (Heath, Rothon and Kilpi, 2008), health (Huijts and Kraaykamp, 2012) and labour market outcomes.

In this contribution, I review the literature about the incorporation of immigrants and their children in the labour market. Before doing so, three remarks regarding the scope of this review are in order.

First, I focus on theories and findings from sociological work. This has several implications, not least the key outcomes that are studied. While economists typically focus on wages – both the wage gains from migration, and wage inequalities compared with settled populations in the country of destination – sociologists, by contrast, tend to focus more on employment and occupational attainment.

Second, my empirical overview covers findings on ethnic inequalities in Europe, with a particular focus on Western Europe (including the UK). Within the European context, sociologists typically study patterns of ethnic inequality by comparing the labour market outcomes of the ‘ethnic majority’ group or ‘natives’ (i.e. those without any migration background) with those of ‘ethnic minority’ members (i.e. those who have a migration background). Among the ethnic minority population, a distinction is then made between the first generation (i.e. ‘foreign-born’, ‘immigrants’) and the second generation (i.e. children born in the host country who have at least one foreign-born parent). Because of the rather recent history of immigration in Europe, fewer sociological studies looked at ethnic inequalities beyond the second generation, or relied on more subjective measures of migration background, such as self-assessed ancestry. In traditional immigration countries, such as the US and Canada, such social categories are more commonly used.

Third, there is a wealth of descriptive information gathered by sociologists about ethnic inequalities in labour markets across European countries, but my review focuses on broader empirical patterns rather than idiosyncratic findings or country studies.

The starting point of this review is a key stylised finding from the sociological field of research, namely that in Western European countries non-Western ethnic minority groups do less well in the labour market in comparison with Western ethnic minority origin groups, and, even more so, they do less well in comparison with the ethnic majority population (Kogan, 2006; Van Tubergen, 2006; Heath, 2008; Fleischmann and Dronkers, 2010; Spörlein and Van Tubergen, 2014; Gorodzeisky and Semyonov, 2017; Damelang, Ebensperger and Stumpf, 2021). To illustrate, Gorodzeisky and Semyonov (2017), using the EU Labour Force Survey 2008, find that in France 11.5% of the non-European male foreign-born population were unemployed. Among the foreign-born from Europe in France, 7.1% were unemployed, whereas among French natives only 4.6% were unemployed. Within the employed population in France, they also find ethnic inequalities in occupational attainment. Among those born outside Europe, 33.2% have a professional, technician or managerial job, while this figure is 34.3% among the foreign-born from Europe and 45.4% of French natives.

My review is organised in the following way. I start with a discussion of various theories that can explain these ethnic inequalities in the labour market, and I review the empirical evidence drawing on studies in Europe. Subsequently, I address heterogeneity in ethnic inequality by country of origin and immigrant generation. I end with a discussion of policy measures.