Wilf Sullivan January 2018
The large increase in racist attacks after the UK referendum to leave the European Union in June 2016 brought back into focus the problem of racism in British society. Many people believed that “in your face” racism was a thing of the past. That racism was no longer a major problem. Insofar as it was acknowledged, the popular belief was that racism had become very subtle therefore was harder to tackle.
Whilst labour market indicators showed that Black and Minority Ethnic workers were consistently discriminated against when it came to access to jobs, training and promotion, and were over-represented in low paid capsulised jobs, little action has been taken by government to address these problems.
The political response to a government commissioned report by business leader Baroness McGregor – Smith was indicative of the laissez-faire response to dealing with racial discrimination. Whilst the report had its shortcomings the recommendations highlighted the need for decisive action to deal with systemic racism in the labour market including legislation to enforce monitoring. Although the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has stated that the economy must work for all, no government action was forthcoming as a result of the report. Instead the Prime Minister stated that:
“Businesses are best placed to know what support they need to improve diversity and inclusion, so we will work with them to ensure that they have the resources they need to fully embed change within their organisations.
The Trade Union Congress (TUC), representing 5,6 million workers in the UK, are concerned that the Government’s current approach to dealing with problems of racial discrimination in the labour market is generic and does not seek to tackle specific problems faced by BME Communities. It believes that it’s a mistake to see inequalities only in terms of race and ethnic origin since socio-economic status and poverty affect people’s chances in life. And the Government have made a deliberate shift away from interventions specifically on the basis of race and ethnicity.
This approach fails to recognise the reality that race discrimination plays a significant role in determining the socio-economic status of BME people and the poverty suffered by BME communities. It also ignores the institutional and systemic discrimination that exists in the UK labour market and wider society. Such an approach can increase racial inequalities through indirect discrimination and fails to tackle institutional and structural discrimination.
To raise awareness of workplace racial discrimination and harassment the TUC conducted an online survey in 2017 to explore the structural and institutional nature of contemporary racism. Over 5000 people responded to the survey, which asked respondents:
- To identify their experiences of racism in the workplace
- If they reported their experiences
- What happened when they reported experience of racism
- What effect experiences of racism had on their lives.
The survey results, which have been analysed by the University of Manchester, will be published in a final report in March 2018. Initial findings show that racism at work is not subtle and that:
- Nearly 100 per cent of BME people reported that their experiences of racism at work has a significant negative impact on both their work and personal lives, such as feeling less confident at work and isolated from colleagues.
- Racism has a profound impact on the mental health of a considerable number of BME people which affects their personal lives.
- Making a complaint even in cases that are dealt with appropriately risks resulting in being further isolated from colleagues and can result in repercussions such as being subjected to disciplinary procedure, counter-complaint or branded a ‘trouble maker’.
- Nearly 20 per cent of BME women reported that they had no other option but to leave their job as a direct result of racist discrimination.
- The report highlights the need to think intersectionally about the experiences of BME women and marginalisation in the workplace.
Racism is talked about in terms of individual incidents that take place. What the findings show is that there’s a problem with workplace culture, and that many BME people are unable to challenge bullying, harassment and discrimination because they lack confidence that their complaints will be listened to.
This creates a toxic environment, which affects not only BME workers, but their families as well. Studies that have analysed the mechanisms linking experiences of discrimination to family members, found that as well as the health impact on the individual it extends to others, including their children’s health and development.
The TUC believe that the physical and psychological impacts for BME workers experiencing any form of racism or discrimination or working in a hostile environment are far reaching. It can undermine workers’ careers, leave them feeling isolated from colleagues at work and have an effect on relationships with family and friends.
Over the years we have consistently stressed the need for a separate, clear government race equality strategy and action plan — a strategy that is not based on the assumption that individual black workers need to do more to jump over the barriers of discrimination that are erected against them in the workplace.
Wilf Sullivan is the TUC Race Equality Officer. He is active on race equality policy matters both inside and outside of the trade union movement. He is the co-author with Stephen Ashe, University of Manchester, of a forthcoming report on racism at work, due in March 2018.