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Section 5: Barrier Removal


Minority ethnic clients will face many of the same barriers as other disadvantaged groups, using employability services including difficulties accessing childcare, being stuck in a benefits trap or having few skills and little employment experience.

People from minority ethnic groups can also face specific barriers and it is important to be aware of these. This section covers the most critical barriers encountered by minority ethnic clients, based on research and talking to services currently working with people from these groups. 

A flexible approach and a strong equalities perspective can address barriers effectively. This should involve: 

  • Flexibility in terms of service design and the kind of support which can be offered including flexibility intensity of support, timings, location and structure of training;
  • Addressing barriers such as poor basic skills, housing problems or substance misuse issues as well as employability issues;
  • Tailoring support to meet diverse participant needs and circumstances.

The Roma Employability Service case study on the Employability in Scotland website is a good example of this perspective and shows how support was put in place to meet the additional needs of Roma clients.   


Discrimination is the key problem which minority ethnic people face when they are trying to get a job or progress in the labour market. It is important to understand the dimensions of discrimination and to be aware of all of the ways it can affect people.

It can affect entry to the labour market. For example, a research project found apparent ethnicity determined by a person's name on a job application affected whether applicants were successful on the first round of the selection process. There is other evidence that although people are often short listed for jobs they face difficulties moving from the short listing stage into jobs.

Discrimination is also the reason why people have difficulties progressing in the labour market. Many people remain underemployed in jobs which do not reflect their qualifications. Many are segregated occupationally in certain sectors such as catering and hospitality and find it difficult to move into other sectors. There tend to be lower retention rates and higher exit rates with a range of reasons for this including harassment and isolation at work.

Yet race is not the only dimension on which discrimination can be based. People can be members of other equality groups linked to disability, sexual orientation, age, religion or belief and therefore experience multiple discrimination when these factors intersect. It is important to be aware of the issues around intersectionality which can compound problems for minority ethnic clients and increase the discrimination they face.

When working with clients it is important to:

  • be aware of the way that discrimination can affect client's employability chances;
  • help clients cope with discrimination and make them aware of sources of support;
  • work with employers to tackle discrimination for example through offering training or bringing employers together to discuss the issues;
  • promote the benefits of employing a diverse workforce among employers.

These latter two actions are discussed later in the toolkit. 

Sources of information and support for tackling discrimination are:

Gender Issues

Women can face additional barriers as a result of being female and from a minority ethnic group. Specific barriers for minority ethnic women include lack of access to childcare, occupational segregation and pay gaps, cultural attitudes towards women and lack of social capital.  Women also tend to bear the brunt of decline in local services like childcare, ESOL and community groups further isolating them in precarious socio-economic positions. 

The key barriers for women refugees include difficulties matching qualifications to UK equivalents, language barriers, college and childcare commitments and employers' understanding of immigration status. 

Understanding of the Labour Market

Several of the services we spoke to when developing this toolkit told us some clients may have very limited understanding of the UK labour market and how it works as they may have been out of the labour market for some time. They will require help to develop their job seeking skills.

This is particularly important for people who are migrants, refugees or asylum seekers as the usual procedures and cultural practices for obtaining a job in the UK may be quite different to those used in people's country of origin.

Clients will need assistance with:

  • finding out about where to look for jobs;
  • what job adverts mean;
  • how to apply for a job;
  • how to create a CV; 
  • interview skills; 
  • what training opportunities are available;
  • understanding that it can take a long time to get a job.

Examples of work to address lack of understanding of the UK labour market are highlighted below. 

Govanhill Backcourts Initiative found many of their Roma clients had misconceptions of the UK labour market. They knew little about the culture of work in the UK, employers' expectations and had a preference for casual work.  The project had to spend some time working through these issues but have found that the improved understanding has had a positive impact on the sustainability of job outcomes.      

Frae Fife organises workshops to help clients develop job application techniques, preparing a CV and interview skills and increase confidence about applying for jobs.

Low Confidence

Building confidence is a likely to be a key part of work with minority ethnic clients.  Being out of the labour market for some time, or facing discrimination when applying for jobs can have profound effects on clients' self confidence. Undergoing the asylum process can affect people's self confidence and skills and can lead to gaps in work histories.

Confidence can be built in many ways, but groups can be particularly helpful people often  welcome the chance to meet with others in the same situation and to develop peer support.      

English Language Fluency

Research has found that one of the most important factors affecting ability to find work is fluency in English. This affects whether employment is secured, the type of employment, promotion prospects and earning potential. This means that for all clients for whom English is not their main language, their level of English can present a significant barrier to gaining employment. English fluency can be determined by amount of contact with English, length of residency in the UK and ability to access English classes. It is in this latter area that employability projects can make a useful contribution by helping people to access the right kind of provision.

ESOL classes are available across Scotland in many forms and at a range of levels to help people achieve a qualification in English. The right type of provision for an individual learner depends on their circumstances which include level of English, access to funding, whether they want a qualification or need access to childcare. For some learners, a community-based class may provide a less intensive and more local starting point. However, in many cases, (e.g. for those wishing to study at higher levels) a college main campus place may offer more appropriate courses of study. ESOL may be offered as a standalone course or it may be embedded in a vocational training programme. For instance, a construction skills course may be taught by a tutor who has an ESOL qualification and can teach both construction and language skills. ESOL may also be studied as a main course, with a module in another subject, such as IT embedded in it. ESOL learning may take place in private institutions or within the workplace. Much publicly funded ESOL provided by colleges, universities, community based providers and voluntary organisations is free.

For case studies on different ESOL delivery modes, please see the ESOL Scotland website.

Types of ESOL qualifications

Three main types of ESOL qualifications are offered in Scotland:

  • Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) awards which are provided as part of its NQ framework and which are recognised by education establishments and employers across the UK.
  • Cambridge ESOL qualifications which are recognised around the world.
  • Some providers help people to prepare for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) which is an indicator of a candidate's ability to communicate in English.

More information about these qualifications can be found on the SQA website or the Cambridge English website.

The type of qualification chosen can depend on why the person needs the qualification. If they are looking for work, the SQA ESOL for Work units may be most appropriate. If the person wants to learn English to support an application for British citizenship, the Home Office will require an SQA qualification at Access 2 - Intermediate 1 level. If the person is looking to go to college or university they will probably need to attain a qualification equivalent to SCQF Level 6 such as SQA Higher ESOL or IELTS 6.0 and above. The different ESOL levels and qualifications and how they map unto the Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework is provided below. 

Figure 9: ESOL Levels and Qualifications

Section 5 - Figure 9

Understanding ESOL Level Descriptions

Glasgow Clyde College in conjunction with the former Glasgow South East Regeneration Agency developed useful ESOL indicators to help employability practitioners better understand how skills at different levels might relate to job skills. These indicators, which are described in the table below, are useful in explaining the ESOL levels outlined above. 

Section 5 - Table 1

Further information about ESOL levels and qualifications can be found on the Education Scotland's website.

More generally, the quality of ESOL provision can be judged by determining the extent to which it meets the principles for adult ESOL provision set out in the Government's ESOL strategy. This states that provision should:

  • support inclusion and full participation in society and the economy;
  • promote diversity, by recognising and valuing cultures and contributions migrants can make to the economy;
  • be of good quality, that is accessible, cost effective and uses best practice in teaching languages;
  • support achievement, supporting wider and national literacies standards;
  • support and encourage progression into further learning, employment and in local community life.

Linking ESOL Provision and Employability

It is increasingly recognised that ESOL needs to be better integrated with other services, particularly employability services. Like many clients accessing employability services, minority ethnic clients may have barriers to learning and may need encouragement and their confidence built to take part in learning. Clients can be referred for an ESOL assessment carried out by a trained ESOL practitioner to provide them with a test of their speaking, listening, reading and writing skills. This may help clients to gain confidence and to access an appropriate course of ESOL. An example of work is provided below.

In Glasgow, ESOL Assessment and Advice Sessions are held in different locations in the city on different days of the week. These provide access to ESOL initial assessment and advice on learning opportunities and help learners to access appropriate ESOL courses of study. The sessions also allow ESOL providers in the city to gain information about learner needs and demand. Following initial assessment, the assessor and client discuss the recommended level of ESOL study and information on local providers to decide which offers the most appropriate ESOL course. For more information about the service, see the Learn ESOL Glasgow website

Where the required resources are available, ESOL can be included within a package of support for clients, as in the example below.

The Bridges Programme in Glasgow, which offers employability support to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, has tasked City of Glasgow College with developing vocational ESOL courses for its clients. This was because staff of the programme realised that clients who have no work experience in the UK sometimes struggle to find the words in English to express themselves in relation to their vocation and also that cultural differences add to the barriers to work facing clients.

So far ESOL vocational courses have been offered to clients in a range of subjects, including social care, early years education, construction, finance, customer care and employability skills. A laboratory technology course is also likely to be offered to the programme's clients in the near future.

The courses are designed to prepare clients for work and cover the language/vocabulary needed within the particular vocation, as well as work ethics and workplace culture (such as the importance of punctuality and the need to phone the workplace if one is going to be late). Clients are also taught how to make e-portfolios. The courses take 90 hours to deliver over a 6 week period and are delivered at the Bridges Programme premises. Clients may also undertake work placements. With clients having different levels of ability in English tutors assess them to determine their correct level.

At the end of the courses clients gain SQA units, language skills and improved confidence and self esteem.

ESOL providers can be located on the ESOL Scotland website, which provides information about publicly funded ESOL courses, has a directory of courses which can be searched as well as a list of college and community based ESOL contacts. It also provides information on funding.

Wider Barriers

Some minority ethnic clients might also be facing other issues that are affecting their employability such as poor health, housing issues, access to childcare and benefits traps.


Poor health is a barrier to employment and job retention and is related to deprivation so affects minority ethnic communities who are more likely to live in deprived areas. Information to help understand about issues relating to health, inequality and discrimination can be found at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde's Equalities in Health website. See:

Some projects work specifically on health issues. An example is shown in the box below.

Reach Community Health Project works with people who have poor health but want to return to work.  It developed a skills development programme for this client group a key element of which was personal development. The programme helped people with long term health conditions gain confidence and take up volunteering opportunities to help them move into work.  See a case study of this project on the Voluntary Action Fund website


Housing is a very important issue which affects the ability to gain and remain in employment. Some minority ethnic clients may face housing issues, including difficulty securing housing; getting access to good quality housing and finding housing in areas where they are safe from the threat of racial harassment. 

The incidence of recorded homelessness affecting households from minority ethnic communities can be up to 75% higher than across the population as a whole, although substantial differences were found among individual ethnic minority groups.  

Local authorities, housing associations, as well as charitable organisations such as Shelter can be contacted for help and support on housing-related issues. However, specialist help and information about housing law can be sought from:

  • Housing advice centres;
  • Solicitors with expertise in housing law;
  • Legal advice centres;
  • Shelter; and
  • Citizens Advice Bureaux.

There are some specialist organisations that can assist with housing issues.  Positive Action in Housing Ltd (PAiH) is a Scotland wide charity working with communities, housing providers, voluntary organisations and faith groups to help people get an equal chance to live in good quality, affordable and safe homes. They offer advice, information and support to people from new migrant, refugee and ethnic minority communities.

PAiH runs a free, confidential and impartial casework service for those facing poverty, homelessness, racism or poor housing. They also have a Hardship Fund and provide emergency shelter and practical resources for destitute asylum seekers and their families.


As with many other client groups, finding appropriate childcare can be a barrier to employment. There can be issues about the cost and availability of childcare as well as difficulties finding the kind of childcare parents feel happy about. 

Also, as with other client groups, some minority ethnic clients may not be used to using formal childcare providers and may instead prefer to rely on informal care given by family and friends. If this is no longer possible or it does not fit in with their requirements when the client starts work then there will be a need to find alternative childcare.

Employability services in Glasgow have taken a variety of approaches to increasing ethnic minority clients' childcare options. 

  • They have worked with local mother and toddler groups to give information to parents about local childcare facilities.
  • They have tried to offer a range of types of childcare support and to highlight the availability of a range of different providers.
  • Another approach has been to source childcare where staff can speak community languages.
  • They have worked with women from the communities to act as advocates for childcare to try to break down any issues of lack of trust with formal childcare services.

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Key Points

1.  Minority ethnic clients face many of the same barriers to work as other clients, but they can also face specific barriers such as discrimination which need to be addressed by employability services.
2. Discrimination is a key barrier. It is important to understand the dimensions of discrimination and know how it can affect entry into and progression in the labour market. 
3. Other barriers that need to be addressed include limited understanding of the labour market, lack of fluency in English, poor health, housing issues and lack of childcare.