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OPINIONNovember 3, 2022

How to improve the inclusion of Afro-Descendant youth in the Brazilian Labor Markets

Flávia Carbonari, Pablo Acosta and Germán Freire*

A modified version in Portuguese of this article was published on Folha de S. Paulo

November is a month of awareness in Brazil. On the 20th, the country commemorates the National Day of Black Consciousness. The date was established more than a decade ago, to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Zumbi dos Palmares, a Brazilian quilombola leader and one of the pioneers of the antislavery struggle in the Americas. The anniversary of his death convokes Brazilians to reflect on the substantial racial inequalities that persist 134 years after the abolition of slavery.

Despite the important progress of the last decades, Afro-Brazilians, who represent around 56% of the population, continue to have lower levels of human capital accumulation, poorer access to services and markets, and are disproportionately exposed to high levels of violence in the country. Moreover, they are substantially underrepresented in decision-making positions, both in the public and private sectors, which limits their ability to challenge the status quo.

The structural injustices that anchor a majority of Afro-Brazilians to poverty and exclusion are particularly apparent in the job market and affect especially Afro-descendant youth and women. Young black men and women share dreams of professional and financial stability but are confronted with barriers and segregation in low-capacity/low-paying jobs. Lack of employment experience and limited opportunities anchor them to vicious cycles of exclusion that predetermine much of their life choices at a very early age.

This is what a new, mixed-methods study on the insertion of young Afro-descendant men and women in the Brazilian labor market shows. The study was commissioned by the World Bank and carried out by Afro-Cebrap and the Instituto de Referência Negra Peregum. The qualitative component of the study was conducted by 10 young Afro-descendants themselves, trained as community-researchers, from five vulnerable communities from across the country. They led a participant-research methodology by means of which the study sought to amplify their own voices and aspirations in the search for solutions.

The study highlights three sets of factors that shape the kind of inequalities and difficulties faced by afro-Brazilian youth when trying to enter the labor market, which are illustrated in the figure below.

Percentage of people ages 18-29, working and/or studying in Brazil, by race and gender (2019)

Percentage of people ages 18-29, working and/or studying in Brazil, by race and gender (2019)

Source: PNADC, 2019.

The first factor concerns the disadvantages in access to good quality education, which leaves them with little option but to take on precarious, low-pay and low-skill jobs, mostly in the informal sector. Of the 81 young people interviewed for the study, 29 had dropped out before completing secondary. One young person who had managed to enroll in higher education highlighted the difficulties of remaining in the system:

Entering a college is difficult enough, but being there and not having access to the means needed for studying is even more of a problem. (…) I've seen people drop out of college, and it's scary because you know you might be the next to drop out for lack of funds.”

The second concern is occupational segregation, which leads Afro-descendants and white populations to occupy specific niches in the labor market. Youth interviewed reported that once they reach higher education, their strategies to join the job market and their sources of income remain rooted in previous (pre-university) or non-professional activities. According to household survey data (PNAD Contínua 2019), more than 60% of manual workers in Brazil are Afro-descendant, while more than 60% of professionals and employers are white. Furthermore, only 6.3% of Afro-descendants occupy management levels in companies, 4.7% at executive board level, and 4.9% at board representative level.

A third factor is outright discrimination in the labor market, evidenced in the tremendous wage gaps between people of different race and gender, favoring white males. Around one third of the young people interviewed for the study cited perceived barriers in the hiring process, such as the importance of one's appearance or skin color. Household data confirm this perception. Afro-descendant men, white women and afro-descendant women earn systematically less than white men for the same types of work, even if holding the same education level and experience. White professional practitioners and landowners, for example, earn on average of 54% more than Afro-descendant women in the same category.

To challenge deep-rooted inequalities and end racism in the labor market, the study recommends, among others:

  • Active policies to promote the insertion of these groups in the labor market and to examine possible improvements to cater better for young afro-descendants in the school system and in their transition to the labor market
  • Boosting opportunities for continuing education, while strengthening affirmative-action policies to avoid secondary education being perceived as an end game for lower-class young people—often cited by young Afro-descendants as a main reason for dropping out of the education system
  • Implementing affirmative actions in the private sector, such as specific trainee and career development programs targeted at Afro-descendant people
  • More investment in the training of young people to prepare for the job market and to learn job hunting skills
  • Wage subsidies to incentivize employers in hiring candidates with a lens of inclusion
  • Transport subsidies for job search assistance to help young people travel to places further away from home, which may offer more attractive opportunities
  • Investing in a variety of dedicated programs for self-employed workers

The palette of options is wide ranging and Brazil already has several experiences pioneering in the region. Realizing the full economic potential of millions of young Afro-Brazilians will not only redress centuries of injustice and vindicate the historic struggle of the likes of Zumbi dos Palmares, it will also make Brazil more prosperous and resilient.


Flávia Carbonari, World Bank Senior Social Development and Gender Consultant
Pablo Acosta, World Bank Program Leader for Human Development in Brazil
Germán Freire, World Bank Senior Social Development Specialist

This article was written in collaboration with Vanessa Nascimento, executive director of Instituto de Referência Negra Peregum, and Danilo França, professor of sociology at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF) and researcher at Afro-Cebrap.


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