UK labour market is institutionally racist, say unions
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Anti Racism Protesters

Unions have hit back at a “deeply cynical” new report that concludes there to be no evidence of institutional racism in the UK’s labour market, despite black, Asian, and minority ethnic workers being at greater risk of harm linked to the covid-19 pandemic.

The long-awaited report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities considers institutional discrimination in education, policing, health, and employment.

In the foreword to the report, commission chairman Dr Tony Sewell said: “We no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.” Dr Sewell later told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that while there was anecdotal evidence of racism in the UK, there was no proof the country was institutionally racist.

Among its 24 recommendations, the report calls on employers to replace unconscious bias training with new sponsorship programmes, to “ensure wider exposure of ethnic minority individuals to their peers, managers, and other decision-makers”, as well as routine skills support “for all employees in their professional and personal lives”.

The full 264-page report also calls on the government to work with academics to develop evidence-based approaches to advance fairness in the workplace.

“The landscape of diversity training is highly mixed, and the government can play a role in guiding organisations to high-quality materials and resources,” said the report. “These resources should include guidance for employers, and be piloted in the civil service to replace the use of unconscious bias training.”

The commission also recommends that employers that choose to publish their ethnicity pay figures should also publish an action plan to “lay out the reasons for and the strategy to improve any disparities”.

The report also notes that the pay gap between ethnic minority workers and white workers had shrunk to 2.3%, its lowest level since 2012 when it was 5.1%.

In a statement following the report’s publication, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government “remains fully committed to building a fairer Britain and taking the action needed to address disparities wherever they exist”.

Criticism of the report’s findings has been swift. Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust, said she felt “massively let down” and “outraged” by the commission’s findings.

Rehana Azam, GMB national secretary for public services, accused the government of gaslighting black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities with a “deeply cynical report”.

“Institutional racism exists, it’s the lived experience of millions of black and ethnic minority workers,” she said. “How can we ever tackle the problem if the government are not prepared to accept it exists?”

“Institutional and structural racism exists in the UK, in both the labour market and wider society,” agreed TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. “Black and minority ethnic workers are far more likely than white workers to be in low-paid, insecure jobs – such as temporary and agency jobs or zero-hours contracts.”

The disproportionate impact on young black and minority ethnic workers is another reminder that racism exists in the labour market as in wider society

O’Grady highlighted that black, Asian, and minority ethnic workers are more likely to die from covid exposure due to the greater likelihood of them serving in frontline and key worker roles

“This is institutional racism. And it traps too many black and minority ethnic workers in poverty, insecurity and low pay,” she said, before calling on the government to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap action plans.  

The commission’s report comes as the UK unemployment rate for young minority workers has risen at more than twice the speed of the unemployment rate for young white workers.

An analysis of ONS figures by the TUC reveals that the unemployment rate among black, Asian, and minority ethnic people aged 16 to 24-years old increased from 18.2% to 27.3% between the final quarter of 2019 and the final quarter of 2020. During the same period, unemployment among young white workers rose from 10.1% to 12.4%. 

More young workers were made redundant during summer 2020 than in all of 2019 as the covid-19 crisis hit the UK economy. The number of pay-rolled employees aged under 25 fell by 437,000 between February 2020 and February 2021. This accounts for 63% of the nearly 700,000 payroll jobs lost over the pandemic. 

Although the TUC said the loss of jobs is largely the result of covid-19 hitting sectors of the economy where young people are more likely to work, such as accommodation and food services, the union body is concerned that the disproportionate effect on young minority ethnic people is further evidence of racism within the labour market. 

“The disproportionate impact on young black and minority ethnic workers is another reminder that racism exists in the labour market as in wider society,”, said Alex Graham, chair of the TUC Young Workers Forum. “More work is needed to tackle discrimination in the labour market and make racism is a thing of the past.”

A 2018 report issued by the European Parliamentary Research Service calculated that racial and ethnic discrimination results in between €1.8bn and €8bn in lost earnings for individuals and a loss to societies of between €2.4bn and €10.7bn annually.

In the United States, recent data suggests black workers are continuing to experience recession-level unemployment across the country.

An analysis of statistics by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, shows black workers were the only racial group whose national unemployment rate remained above 10%.

Twelve out of 21 states, including DC, had black unemployment rates of more than 10%, with the highest rates being in Pennsylvania (16.5%), Michigan (15.6%), New Jersey (15.4%), and the District of Columbia (14.7%).

By comparison, the overall white unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of last year fell to 5.4%, just 2.3 percentage points above the rate during the first three months of 2020, prior to the pandemic hit.

Unemployment among Latino workers fell to 8.7% in the final three months of last year. However, unemployment rates among Latinos are still at least 10% in California (10.0%), Massachusetts (10.8%), Nevada (10.9%), New York (12.4%), and Pennsylvania (12.9%).