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This week, hundreds of Unite women, black & Asian ethnic minorities, disabled and LGBT+ delegates are coming together in Blackpool for the four Unite national equalities conferences.
These union reps who make such a difference in their workplaces, industries and communities are debating and agreeing Unite’s equality priorities.
Austerity cuts, EU exit negotiations, stress and pressure from automation and digitalisation, privatisation and subcontracting are all being viewed through a powerful equality lens and debates include experience from the workplace across 20 industrial sectors in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as we set a positive agenda to “take action for equality now!”
As Unite assistant general secretary for equalities, I am so proud of that force for progressive change in our workplaces, in our communities and beyond.
Action called for on women’s pensions, sexual harassment, human trafficking and exploitation, involvement of black and Asian members in political and public life, negotiating sickness absence policies, medical waste bin provision, Brexit, no return to 1950s on LGBT rights, campaign on transgender rights in the workplace and so much more.
Speaker after speaker laying down challenges to employers, to politicians and to the union too. “We won’t let equality get left behind, we won’t be an add-on or an afterthought. We are here, here to lead, a force to be reckoned with.”
2018 is an equality milestone anniversary — 100 years on from when women first won the vote in this country and 90 years from when all women had the vote.
Time to take stock. How far have we come?
As recently as eight years ago when the Equality Act 2010 we had campaigned for came into law, we welcomed it as an important move forwards — not just rights against harassment and discrimination but duties to prevent it and promote equality too.
We knew we had come a long way and what we had achieved but were also ready for the struggle to ensure implementation and further progress.
Eight years later, day after day, the horrifying reality of harassment, discrimination, unequal pay and inequality faced by women, black & Asian ethnic minorities, disabled and LGBT+ people confronts us.
We must rebuild that united struggle, confidence, hope. The path to equality does not always run smoothly.
Since 2010 our incredible achievements on equality have had to withstand a ferocious onslaught of attacks from every direction. We have had to spend so much time, energy and resources in the struggle against these attacks from employers, governments and others — stopping them where we can, defending our members against the impact at all times, but we cannot let the equalities agenda be reduced to fighting against moving backwards.
Statutory rights for union equality reps is not just “unfinished business” it is also a priority for equality and fairness at work and in the union.
Unite’s equality reps exist in many workplaces and we have successfully negotiated full union rep rights in some workplaces, but unlike other union reps they have no legal rights to paid time off for training and to carry out their role effectively in tackling and preventing harassment and discrimination at work. This is a serious gap that urgently needs to be put right.
Union equality reps can help a woman going on maternity leave understand her rights, for example. They can carry out equality audits to identify BAEM employment gaps, support reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled workers can stay in work and promote LGBT+ equality policies and education.
On this issue, we have real hope for change — Labour’s manifesto pledged for the first time last year to introduce statutory rights for union equality reps. That’s a pledge we can celebrate, that will make a huge difference, that can change all our workplaces and communities for the better.
Right now though, hope can be too easily overshadowed by the threat of the next attack and the pressure to defend hard-fought for gains.
The introduction of tribunal fees, at a stroke, cut the number of anti-discrimination and harassment legal cases that were lodged. No reduction in discrimination, just no access to justice. A wrong now being put right as fees are abolished, but the damage done to people’s lives, to their families, communities and to the cause of equality is the legacy we cannot forget.
At the same time, austerity cuts have widened equality gaps into chasms and after belittling hard-fought-for equality checks as “bureaucratic nonsense and tick-box stuff,” government then decided to abolish them. All happening at the same time as eye-watering cuts to jobs and funding at the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Now is the time for us all to hold true, against all the odds, to our struggle to continue to move forward, to create a better fairer world for the generations that follow.
Diana Holland is Unite’s assistant general secretary, and equalities and transport and food sectors officer.
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