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Linda Keitasha keeps a folder on her computer of rejections from employers.
She remembers the day she sent out 30 CVs, and got one response back, she says, with a laugh. “But they had meant to write back to somebody else.”
Keitasha, who is black, has been living in Ireland since 2002. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a postgraduate degree in marketing, and has studied for a FETAC level 5 course.
Yet she hasn’t landed a full-time job that matches her qualifications.
One day in June, she spotted a thread on Twitter by Ebun Joseph, a lecturer on Black Studies at University College Dublin and career development consultant at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Joseph, who also writes a column for Dublin Inquirer, tweeted a link to an article charting the experiences of migrants trying to access the labour market.
She posted excerpts from the study, of a woman with a master’s degree describing going back to do a level 5 course in order to find work.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the story of my life,’” says Keitasha.
Joseph’s thread was an early sally in the No to Brain Waste campaign, launched last month to highlight the barriers faced by under-employed and over-qualified migrants and Irish-born ethnic minorities.
Joseph previously worked for Business in the Community as a training and employment officer for nine years, providing guidance to migrants to access the labour market.
“Our black clients took longer to progress through the labour market than white clients,” she says.
The 2016 census found that black Africans recorded some of the highest unemployment rates for non-Irish nationalities. For Nigerians, it’s 43 percent. For Congolese, it’s 63 percent.
These figures, Joseph says, are “shocking”.
To start, the campaign’s main ask is for companies to “add one”.
“That’s all we’re asking,” says Joseph. “For companies like Google, big companies, we’re asking them to add one black person to every department. For AIB, add one black person to every branch.”
The campaign is also asking that employers challenge “under-employment” – where migrants with degrees and qualifications are working in low-skill jobs to make ends meet.
“For those who are white migrants, there are other challenges, that they’re under-employed. They are doing voluntary work or part-time work. Organisations need to see how they can raise that person to work on their level,” says Joseph.
Organisers want people with experiences of job-market discrimination to write to them too by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The campaign’s ultimate aim is to reduce black unemployment to 20 percent in the next census and raise awareness of the issues migrants face, says Joseph.
Joseph says people have reached out to her with stories of their futile job searches, inappropriate comments from managers, and computer folders full of rejections.
“It depressed me to listen to them. I can’t begin to explain how able they are,” Joseph says. “They’re wasting away.”
Going in Circles
Sandra Ruiz, who is also part of the campaign, describes a merry-go-round of study and precarious jobs.
She moved to Ireland in 2009, with two bachelor’s degrees from Spain, one in educational psychology and one in physical education.
For a while, she worked as a gym instructor in Bray, earning €1,600 a month. “That’s the highest-paid job I’ve had in Ireland,” she says.
Over the decade since, she’s signed up to training course after training course, a master’s degree in women, gender and social studies, and two diplomas.
She worked part-time for an NGO for four years but left due to a lack of progression, she says.
She interned with another NGO, working on migrant and refugee rights, for €900 a month. The six-month internship stretched into 11-months, she says.
Her hope was it would become full-time. When it ended it came as a shock, says Ruiz: “There was an email that went around saying, ‘Sandra is leaving’.”
Other times, Ruiz has gotten a job only to have the role downgraded – like when she applied to be a full-time project manager at a social enterprise.
“They told me after I got it that it would be changed to a part-time role as an assistant project manager,” she says.
Ruiz, who has a husband and two daughters born in Ireland, says she has stayed for her family.
She’s back looking for work now. “I don’t know what the next five years will be like. If I can’t find a job, I’m going to have to leave. For my own mental health,” she says.
A 2018 study by Joseph tracked 32 people of Nigerian, Polish and Spanish descent living, working, or volunteering in Ireland.
The testimonies she gathered showed patterns that match Ruiz’s experiences. People did educational courses, got degrees, took up volunteering – yet were still unable to get work to match their qualifications, or, often, any paid job.
“It is the migrants’ experience of becoming stuck transitioning between various forms of unpaid employment, [re]training and education, usually at levels lower than their prior education, with limited success accessing paid work,” the report says.
After Keitasha – also a campaign organiser – couldn’t find a journalism job, she began to work in retail, and later the care industry, she says.
“I had a baby and I just couldn’t get a professional job anymore. It just became really, really difficult,” she says.
Since then, she’s done two more courses, CE schemes, clocked up hours of volunteering but just can’t find a “professional job”, she says.
“You have no idea how depressing it is, sitting in a class and you think that you should be teaching that class,” she says.
“Imagine going back to do a vocational training course so you can go and earn the minimum wage,” she says.
Right now, she volunteers weekly with a migrants’ rights NGO. That’s unpaid, though.
“The ironic thing is, any time I’ve applied for any care job, even when I haven’t had the experience, they pretty much hire people on the spot,” says Keitasha. “But never a professional job that I would want to do.”
Discrimination may be behind some of the high unemployment rates among Africans in Ireland, says a 2018 study by Phillip J. O’Connell, director of Geary Institute at University College Dublin.
Even after accounting for the “direct provision” system for people seeking asylum in Ireland, and its “scarring” effect on those who have left it, “there nevertheless remains a substantial ‘unexplained’ African disadvantage, one that is particularly severe among women”, it says.
The study found that an African woman was three and a half times as likely to be unemployed as an Irish woman of the same age, marital status, education and English-language fluency. For men, it’s two and a half times as likely, the study says.
Joseph’s article describes an “ascription of deficiency to Black workers and their credentials”, contributing to their unemployment.
Ruiz, who is white, says there are “layers of discrimination”, including a person’s gender, religion and accent.
“I think the minute you walk into an interview, and they find out that you have an accent or the way you pronounce things, it gets harder,” she says.
Keitasha says the campaign has been eye-opening for her, to learn that she’s not the only one. “I used to think it was me. But I’ve also realised that Ireland has a long way to go.”
Employers and recruiters should have to give routine feedback to applicants, especially those who fall within the nine categories protected in law, says Joseph.
(Those categories cover characteristics such as gender, race, and membership of the Travelling community – but not social class.)
Giving feedback would help tackle discrimination and curb implicit bias, says Joseph.
“That means the recruiter has to think twice because they know they are under scrutiny.”
“When some people apply, employers just bin the CV,” Joseph says. “They don’t even read it properly.”
Joseph says she hopes, too, that people can be inspired to mentor a migrant or ethnic minority in their chosen discipline.
“Use all the social capital that you have. Make those phone calls on that person’s behalf. Help this person grow,” she says. “People have to take actual action.”