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A Better Recovery

Learning the lessons of the corona crisis to create a stronger, fairer economy
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Chapter 2: Equality at work

The impact of Covid-19 has had a clear disproportionate impact on different groups. Immediate steps must be taken to address the adverse impact on people with protected characteristics. Equally importantly is co-ordinated longer-term action to ensure that inequalities are not increased and entrenched by employers’ responses to the pandemic and the expected economic downturn.

The deadly impact of BME inequality

The impact of coronavirus on BME people has laid bare multiple areas of systemic disadvantage and discrimination. The fact that BME people are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, have poorer health outcomes and be concentrated in insecure work is well documented. Numerous reports over the years - some commissioned by the government itself - have recommended action to tackle discrimination and entrenched disadvantage. If these recommendations had been acted on, perhaps BME people might be facing a different situation today.

We cannot continue this inaction when the Covid-19 crisis has shown us clearly that inequality not only limits Black people’s life opportunities but also contributes to prematurely ending their lives.

Much of the debate around the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BME people has focused on symptoms of inequality, such as higher rates of asthma, rather than on causal factors such as poverty, which underpins BME communities’ higher rates of exposure to air pollution. This approach risks leading to pathologizing communities rather than focused action to address the root causes of disproportionate impact. An effective response needs to take on board these causal factors.

In addition, there are highly concerning reports of potential discrimination in the allocation of higher risk job roles, with BME healthcare staff reporting being asked to work on Covid-19 wards over and above their white colleagues. These reports reflect the discrimination faced by BME workers before the outbreak of Covid-19. Research conducted by TUC in early 2020 revealed that 56 per cent of BME women and 48 per cent of BME men reported being allocated harder or less popular tasks than white counterparts. Almost half did not report incidents, while others reported not being believed and being targeted for worse treatment if they did report discrimination. Those in insecure work faced even more barriers to reporting, with fears of work not being offered if they raised complaints.

Gender inequality and Covid-19

The health, social and economic impacts of Covid-19 are highly gendered. The economic and health impacts of this crisis are most acutely affecting key workers and those employed on insecure contracts in shutdown sectors. These workers are more likely to be women.

Women are the vast majority of those working on the frontline of this crisis:

  • Of the 3,200,000 workers at highest risk of exposure to Covid-19, 77 per cent are women
  • Women comprise 77 per cent of healthcare workers, 83 per cent of the social care workforce, and 70 per cent of those working in education.
  • Mothers are more likely to be key workers than fathers or non-parents: 39 per cent of working mothers were key workers before this crisis began, compared to 27 per cent of the working population as a whole.

Women are more vulnerable to economic hardship during this crisis than men. Women are the majority of those providing care, whether paid or unpaid, doing three times more unpaid caring than men. They are more likely to be employed on insecure and zero-hours contracts than men, particularly BME and migrant women, and to be working part-time. Women are also more likely to be employed in service sectors that have been shut down because of social distancing measures, particularly younger women. More women are dependent on the social security system than men and are living in an insecure housing, especially women on low-incomes and single mothers.

The risks for disabled people

Disabled people and those with long-term health conditions tend to have lower real incomes and higher costs than the general population. Benefit cuts and changes to the welfare system over the last ten years hit disabled people particularly hard, leaving disabled adults four times worse off financially than non-disabled adults. Nearly half of those in poverty, 6.9 million people, are from families which include a disabled person.

Research shows that economic downturns have a disproportionate negative impact on the employment of disabled people, finding that during upturns disabled people are the last to gain employment, and during downturns they are first to be made unemployed. Looking at the impact of the 2008-2009 financial crisis shows that disabled employees were more likely to experience negative changes to terms and working conditions, such as wage freezes, reduced overtime, and the reorganisation of work than non-disabled people during the recession.

We are concerned that this experience may be repeated in the expected economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Disabled people already face significant barriers in getting and keeping jobs, as evidenced by the disability employment gap which stands at almost 30 per cent, despite the government’s 2015 manifesto pledge to halve it.

The government should:

  • publish a cross-departmental action plan, with clear targets and a timetable for delivery, setting out the steps that they will take to tackle the entrenched disadvantage and discrimination faced by BME people. In order to ensure appropriate transparency and scrutiny of delivery against these targets we recommend that regular updates are published and reported to Parliament
  • strengthen the role of the Race Disparity Unit to properly equip it to support delivery of the action plan
  • review and where necessary redraft the Gender Equality Roadmap to reflect the current context and include a clear timetable for delivery
  • engage with Disabled People’s Organisations and disabled individuals to ensure that the voice and experiences of disabled people are central to the process, and review
    • Access to Work grants to take account of the current context, with a view to improving resourcing and processes
    • the implications of the increase in home working for disabled workers, with a view to improving disabled people’s access to work
    • the steps necessary to effectively close the disability employment and pay gaps in the current context
  • produce a strategy and timetable to address the systemic inequality that disabled people experience in the labour market
  • ensure compliance with the public sector equality duty throughout its response to Covid-19. The public sector equality duty was specifically introduced to ensure that proper consideration was given to the impact of policies on people from groups protected by the Equality Act. Currently we can see little evidence of how, or indeed if, government is delivering on this duty in its response to Covid-19 including its exit strategy. The EHRC as the relevant regulatory body has a key role to play in ensuring compliance in this regard and must prioritise and appropriately resource enforcement and compliance work in this area.

Finally, there must be no delay in work to promote equality already underway. Protecting workers is the best way to protect the economy and more equal workplaces have been shown to be more productive and profitable. As we move out of the lockdown phase government should continue its work on important policy areas including making flexible work the default, preventing sexual harassment at work, narrowing ethnicity pay gaps and strengthening redundancy protections for new mothers.

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