Senior black union leader condemns ‘colour-blind’ levelling up

A “colour-blind” approach to the levelling up agenda would have a damaging effect on black workers, the UK’s most senior black union leader has warned.

Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT, the teachers’ union, and chair of the TUC anti-racism taskforce, said that the vast body of evidence shows black workers are discriminated against when they’re seeking employment, miss out on opportunities for career development and progression and find themselves disproportionately more likely to lose their jobs.

“When the government talks about a levelling up agenda, they can’t talk about a levelling up agenda which is colour blind. It has to be actively looking at the issues of racial justice as part and parcel of any levelling up agenda,” Roach said.

He called on the government to introduce legislation that forces employers to be much more transparent and accountable for their own decision making when it comes to racism at work. “A requirement for employers to report on their ethnicity pay gaps would be one way of highlighting those disparities, and then beginning to look at what actions are needed to address those disparities workplace by workplace, employer by employer,” he said.

Roach, speaking during Black History Month, added: “It’s absolutely vital that the government does not get seduced by arguments that institutional and systemic racism do not exist, because denying that means we will be moving to a colour-blind approach, which will continue to have an adverse and deleterious effect on black workers.”

He explained that the role of the taskforce, which was formed last year following the Black Lives Matter protests to investigate and highlight racial injustice at work, is particularly important after the government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities, which was criticised for downplaying the role of structural racism.

“The evidence is stacked up against that report from the commission for racial and ethnic disparities and we are pressing the government to come clean about its position in respect to the issues of racial injustice in the workplace, and thus far, the government has been somewhat silent on that matter.”

He said that these inequalities have been highlighted and in some areas worsened during the pandemic. “We’ve seen the disproportionate impact of that pandemic on some black workers, who have been as much as three times more likely to die as a result of Covid-19. Having campaigned for an independent public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, we are asking that racial justice features front and centre as part of that public inquiry, so that we get answers about why it was that black workers were disproportionately deployed to the frontline at such a dangerous time.”

He said that in jobs across industries, black workers are more likely to be lower paid and more likely to be working zero-hours contracts than their white counterparts. “So we have to address those issues of occupational segregation, as well as those issues of structural inequality within our labour market, which is very little to do with educational outcomes and credentials,” he added.

These disparities are not due a lack of qualifications, Roach said. “We also know that that black young people are very well qualified. Many are leaving school with high levels of qualification. Many are going into higher education and coming out with first degrees, with masters and with doctorates and finding that actually they’re not able to compete on a level playing field.”

In 2019, a study by experts based at the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, found applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin. The study found that discrimination against black Britons and those of south Asian origin had remained unchanged over almost 50 years.

An Equality Hub spokesperson said: “We are committed to building a fairer United Kingdom, one which works to achieve equality of opportunity for everyone, from every ethnic background and in every community.

“In this spirit our response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report will set out the actions government will take to promote racial equality across the country.”

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