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Usdaw Conference 2022 Tackling racism is a crucial priority for Usdaw, the trade union movement and the whole of society

Usdaw general secretary PADDY LILLIS argues that structural racism is all-too clear in the workplace, with BME workers facing poorer wages, temporary contracts and prejudicial treatment — but unions are the best way to fight back

RACISM is widespread and persistent, with black and minority ethnic (BME) workers facing discrimination in the labour market and racist abuse in their workplaces. As trade unionists, we must continually take action to make sure that BME workers’ voices are heard and workplaces are free from racism and harassment.

It is a really important time for the anti-racist struggle, not just in the UK but right around the world. BME workers are far more likely to be in low paid, insecure jobs such as temporary and agency jobs or zero-hours contracts. 

They are more likely to be in front line roles and throughout the crisis had less access to both statutory and contractual sick pay. This is institutional racism and it traps far too many BME workers in poverty, insecurity and low pay.

We need to ask yet again if employers, Government and unions are doing enough to tackle the problem. If we are serious about making change happen then we need an honest assessment of where we are and a vision of where we want to get to. 

We might choose to believe that racism is something that has largely gone away or even been eliminated from the workplace and wider society, but in reality racism is thriving and urgent action is needed to deal with the problem. 

One of the places where BME workers experience racism is in the UK labour market. Black, Asian and ethnic minority workers are being forced into low paid, insecure work and the problem is getting worse. 

In recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of BME workers, particularly BME women on temporary contracts. Young BME workers also face acute discrimination in the labour marker being almost twice as likely to be experiencing low-paid insecure work prior to the pandemic.

Of course racism is also experienced by BME workers in relatively secure employment, whether low-paid or otherwise, and are regularly confronted by overt racism. 

Most younger workers have experienced racism and discrimination at work. 

Even before the pandemic, a poll of BME workers revealed that nearly half were given harder or less popular work tasks and a third had been bullied or harassed at work. 

As trade unionists we know that racist discrimination and prejudice still influences decisions made about who gets hired, trained, promoted, retained, demoted or dismissed. 

Government and employers need to do much more than pay lip service to race equality. 

Some employers have made positive steps to tackle racism at work, but many more are slow to act without being required to do so by law. 

The 2017 McGregor-Smith review into race in the workplace made clear recommendations to address the discrimination and bias that black workers face throughout their careers. 

But while the government encouraged employers to adopt the recommendations, they chose not to legally require employers to act. Similarly, recommendations made by other reports into race inequality, such as the Lammy review into criminal justice, the Williams review into the Windrush scandal and the Marmot review into health inequalities, have not been implemented in full.

More recently, a report from a commission set up by the UK government to look into racial disparities in 2021 was roundly condemned for denying the experiences of racism by BME workers and being complacent about the UK's progress towards being an anti-racist society.

A lack of action, where there are obvious steps that can be taken, leaves the government and employers complicit with a status quo where BME workers continue to be at a systemic disadvantage that perpetuates barriers to opportunity and drives inequality.

There needs to be mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, a strengthening of employment rights to tackle insecure work, an extension to the duty to conduct equality impact assessments and an independent inquiry into the disproportionate impact of Covid on BME communities.

Trade union campaigning against racism in the workplace is a very visible and effective way of demonstrating a zero-tolerance approach to racism and all other forms of abuse or harassment. 

Usdaw reps are absolutely crucial to delivering our “no room for racism” campaign, which gets members and non-members talking about tackling racism in a non-confrontational way; but nevertheless sends out a clear and strong message that there is no place for racism in our union, our workplaces or our society.

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