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Economic exploitation ensures structural racism will continue

Tackling endemic societal racism starts with improving health and life chances, which can only be achieved with the decent pay, terms and conditions that too many BAME working people are denied, says HELEN O’CONNOR

THE announcement that the Real Living Wage is set to increase by just 10p an hour in London is a kick in the teeth for the army of BAME workers delivering essential services that are getting us and our families through the pandemic. 

It is worth noting that this pay offer from government is actually 50 per cent lower than it was in November 2019, and the underlying message this sends out is that many low-paid workers are being lined up to pick up the costs of this pandemic via the back door.

Research by the Resolution Foundation suggests there is a £3.2 billion pay gap for BAME workers in this country and there have been calls for big companies to reveal their ethnicity pay gaps. 

In GMB union we know that the world of low-paid employment hits black and Asian workers hardest and this fact is highly visible in London hospitals where we have run multiple trade union campaigns to organise BAME workers. 

Non-core hospital services like cleaning and catering which have the highest proportion of BAME workers, tend to be outsourced to profit-hungry employers who only offer a combination of inadequate pay and hours to migrant workers. 

These employers don’t offer contractual sick pay either and as one GMB member put it, “I can’t support my family, we haven’t been able to pay rent for two months since the last time I had sick pay…”

Low-waged work is a factor that holds BAME workers back from advancing in life and research suggests that only one in four people manage to climb out of low-paying work. 

This means that the vast majority of low-paid BAME workers are struggling to survive rather than thrive and they can remain trapped in this cycle for life. 

These workers will have less of the material necessaries required for optimum health, and the exploitative nature of their jobs ensures they are firmly shut out of the type of housing and educational opportunities that could make a real difference to their life chances. 

Being trapped in low-paid work further damages health and well-being due to the impossible number of hours workers must clock up in order to scrape an existence. 

A heavy price is also paid by the children of low-waged families who suffer disadvantage on multiple levels which narrows their life chances too. 

Trade unions like my own union, GMB, have worked tirelessly to raise working people up through the development and education we provide. 

The government decision to pull the plug on the Union Learning Fund shuts down another possible route out of low-waged drudgery endured by too many BAME GMB members. 

Barriers to learning English and getting basic education stacks the odds up even further against BAME workers and their families and ensures they are held down as a ready supply of cheap labour for ruthless private employers. 

Unfortunately the pay injustice endured by BAME workers doesn’t just stop with the insulting 10p pay offer put onto the Real Living Wage. 

So many BAME GMB members don’t even receive what is defined as “the Real Living Wage” and they are on the even lower hourly rate of £8.72 also known as “the minimum wage.” 

The world of low pay is deliberately structured in a complicated way so that all demands around pay justice hit the ceiling of “the Real Living Wage.” 

Too many in our movement accept this artificial cap which ensures that those trapped in the world of low pay are not encouraged to make the type of truly aspirational pay demands that could genuinely give them a fighting chance to raise themselves out of poverty. 

Protecting the system from rising inflation is put above the right of workers to secure pay they can live on and this ensures that so many BAME workers are kept down and kept poor.

When low-paid black and Asian GMB members in Lewisham hospital embarked on their winning campaign to move from the minimum wage to the Real Living Wage they found that the employer made their lives even more of a misery by cutting back on their shifts, their hours and made redundancies to ensure that introducing the Real Living Wage did not affect their own profitability. 

The 10p pay offer and the widespread acceptance of a damaging two-tier system of poverty pay ensures that life will never be better for the large numbers of BAME workers toiling in the London hospitals day in and day out. 

For these workers the “Real Living Wage” and “the minimum wage” translates as “poverty pay” and “even worse poverty pay.” 

The fact that the exploitation of BAME workers by big facilities management companies in London hospitals is so widespread and enduring reveals that those who hold power in society do not value these workers. 

It is clear that too few in our broken political system are serious about tackling the economic root of the structural racism endured by so many BAME workers in our society. 

Tackling the racism that is endemic in society starts with improving health outcomes and life chances, which can only be achieved with the decent pay, terms and conditions that too many BAME working people are denied. 

Levelling up the playing field for BAME people means improving their material conditions and this will require serious planning, thought and investment backed up by tough legislation on companies that continue to economically exploit workers. 

It is clear that this insulting and inadequate 10p pay offer is part of an overall government strategy which ensures that structural racism will remain a grim reality that endures for the next generation of the BAME community. 

The habit of accepting the few scraps thrown at struggling workers rather than make the serious demands that really improve outcomes for human beings must stop if we are serious about achieving equality for all in society.
 
Helen O’Connor is Southern region organiser for GMB.

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