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Amsterdam should introduce anonymous job applications

Rutger Groot Wassink*

14 June 2007 - The Manpower Employment Agency announced last week that it is going to launch an anonymous job application pilot. Research conducted by TNS Nipo for the Youth Unemployment Taskforce and Manpower revealed that 45 percent of ethnic minority job seekers find that they are judged differently than other applicants in job interviews.

This does not surprise me. The position of (young) ethnic minorities on the labour market is still downright miserable. An overheated economy has so far done little to change that. I find that more anonymous job application pilots should be launched, first of all in Amsterdam. The city administration should show some guts. A city administration that strives for a workforce reflecting the general population would do well to start a large-scale anonymous job application trial. Why not introduce it in all the municipal departments? A city like Amsterdam - run by a progressive administration - can and should take the lead with regard to improving the labour market participation of ethnic minorities. A similar experiment in Nijmegen proved successful. I believe that Amsterdam should also make an effort.

Anonymous job applications can help improve the labour market participation of ethnic minorities. And that is absolutely necessary. Unemployment among ethnic minorities in general and among ethnic minority youth in particular is still incredibly high. In this respect, Amsterdam is no exception. Fifteen and a half percent of the non-western minority labour force is sitting at home, while unemployment among the ethnic Dutch labour force is 4.3 percent. In other words, unemployment among ethnic minorities is three and a half times higher. The situation of ethnic minority youth is even more bleak, twenty-two percent have no job, comparing with nine percent of Dutch youth (source: Netherlands Statistics). These are general data. Various studies suggest that the situation in the large cities is even worse. The labour market situation is not only related to the level of education, but equally with discrimination.

The TNS Nipo study revealed that four out of ten employers believe that anonymous job applications would help offer ethnic minority youth a fair chance. Indirectly, they are thus admitting that equal opportunities are now absent. Even though conscious and unconscious discrimination may not be the only or even the decisive factor explaining the labour market position of ethnic minority youth, it is the factor that most catches the eye. The problem with labour market discrimination is that it is very difficult to get out into the open and therefore to counter its consequences. Only if someone lodges a complaint, institutions like the Equal Treatment Committee (CGB) can take action. But this is always after the fact and generally not very effective. It is difficult to prove that you have been rejected because of your background. So it would be better to prevent discrimination when a position is filled.

As always, employers’ organisations responded to the study by immediately criticising anonymous job applications. That is nothing new. When Rinooy Kan (chairman of the Socio-Economic Council) suggested anonymous job application trials earlier this year, employers also went up the wall. But employers are not alone in their rejection. Immigrants’ organisations too have difficulties with the instrument. The criticism of those organisations is understandable. They say that it emphasises a ‘being different’ while they do not want to feel different. But despite this criticism, I think this measure should not be rejected. Certainly not as long as these parties fail to suggest effective methods themselves. The critics have remained silent for too long. No one is making any suggestions as to how we are going to help ethnic minorities find jobs. This measure can help circumvent discrimination. Therefore we should use it. Criticism alone will not solve the problem.

Let me be clear, anonymous job applications are a rather heavy-handed solution and should only be part of a broader offensive to improve the labour market participation of ethnic minorities. As a means to help a specific group find durable employment, it is at best a treatment of the symptoms, which does not remove the more fundamental causes of limited access to the labour market. But does that mean that the instrument is useless and should be left unused? I think not.

The results of the anonymous job application pilot organised by the Nijmegen municipality show that it works. Ethnic minorities were invited for job interviews at a much higher rate. The data do not lie. More than anything, they confirm the results of previous experiments. An interesting aspect of the trial is that according to alderman Kunst, it made unconscious discrimination visible for the municipality. That in itself is important. Exclusion mechanisms are brought into the open and are circumvented. And that is the bare minimum one should be able to expect from the government. That's why I believe that the government, or at least the Amsterdam Municipality, should take the lead in introducing anonymous job applications.

*The author works for FNV Jong, the Youth Network of the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation. Illustration: 'I have been applying for jobs anonymously for years, but whether it helps...' (Sigmund)


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