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TUC Equality Audit 2020-2021

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Key findings

The 2020 TUC Equality Audit suggests that, in the two years before the outbreak of Covid-19, there were signs that the climate for equality bargaining had improved slightly compared with the position four years earlier. Thirty-two unions responded to the question in the latest audit, of whom

  • 12 (33 per cent) said it had become easier to get employers to engage with equality bargaining.
  • 12 (33 per cent) said it had stayed about the same.
  • Just eight (22 per cent) said it had become more difficult.

In the 2016 audit the balance had been the other way, when just 15 per cent (five) of responding unions said it had become easier to engage employers on equality and 53 per cent (18) said it had been more difficult

Other key findings were:

  • Unions have had most success in achieving equality gains in pay and flexible working/WLB. 58 per cent of unions reported gains in both these areas.
  • Unions achieving gains in general equalities bargaining has risen by 24 per cent in 2016 to 50 per cent in 2020.
  • Equal pay remains the most common priority for unions.
  • Bargaining for women is the equality area where most unions (58 per cent) have policies or guidance in place. This was similar in 2016, with 56 per cent of unions having policies or guidance on women.
  • The percentage of unions with policies or guidance on Black workers 1  (51 per cent in 2016 to 39 per cent in 2020) and disabled workers (54 per cent in 2016 to 44 per cent in 2020) has dropped.

Download full report (pdf)

The audit is supplement by two additional surveys of union reps conducted in June and July 2021 on equality in the workplace and flexible working.

  • 1The TUC uses the term Black worker as a description of workers who are viewed as culturally and intellectually inferior because they are perceived to be non-white and who often share a common history and experience of oppression and exploitation through colonialism, imperialism and contemporary capitalism.
© Jess Hurd/
© Jess Hurd/


The TUC and our affiliates are committed to promoting equality in all aspects of our work. In 2003, we changed our rules to reflect this goal. The biennial TUC Equality Audit is a key part of delivering on that commitment and tracking our progress. The audits alternate between looking at collective bargaining for equality, and union efforts to improve representation and participation. The 2020 audit focuses on collective bargaining and was conducted for the TUC by the Labour Research Department (LRD).

This audit considers the huge range of issues unions address in their search for improved equality for all workers. It also examines the processes by which unions work to achieve it. As in the earlier audits, this one was carried out through a survey of national TUC affiliates, to which 36 of the TUC’s 48 unions replied – or 75 per cent. This compares with 79 per cent four years earlier in 2016.

The survey of TUC affiliates was carried out in early 2020, and unions had largely submitted their responses before the Covid-19 outbreak. Therefore, all the information in the report relates to the period before the pandemic. The process of producing this report was significantly disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak, which is why it is being published later than previous Equality Audits.

The national survey of affiliates has been supplemented by two other pieces of research:

  • a survey of workplace reps across all unions to find out what equality issues they have been facing in their workplace and the training, information and support they use to help them deal with those issues, both before and during the pandemic
  • a survey of workplace reps across all unions aimed at discovering what impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on collective agreements on flexible working and family-related leave and pay.

A separate report will be published on these two surveys.

The bargaining climate

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the deep-seated inequalities in the UK, with disabled workers, Black workers, LGBT plus workers 2  and women all facing disproportionate impacts.

Our audit took place just before the onset of Covid-19 and suggests that in the period prior to the pandemic the climate for equality bargaining had slightly improved and this was an overall improvement on results from 2016.

Unions reported that employers who were making progress saw the business case of equality, diversity and inclusion and that others were genuinely willing to engage on equality: however, many cynically saw equality as a means to gain good publicity.
Sexual harassment was high on the public agenda from 2017 due to the #MeToo movement. Sexual harassment was named as one of the common equality issues for unions and for the first time we asked if unions had equality guidance in stand-alone sexual harassment policies. 42 per cent reported they did, including all six of our large unions.

  • 2 The TUC uses the following definitions: LGBT plus when asking about work done for the full LGBT plus community Trans plus when asking about what has been done for workers across the gender identity spectrum, i.e transmen,transwomen, transgender people, genderqueer and genderfluid workers LGB plus when asking about what has been done for workers across different sexual orientations, i.e lesbians/gay women, gay men, bisexuals, pansexual and asexual workers.

Sexual harassment was named as one of the common equality issues for unions and for the first time we asked if unions
had equality guidance in stand-alone sexual harassment policies.

Our unions reported a mixed picture in the public sector. UNISON and the GMB reported improvements in the NHS but education unions reported it had become harder to engage with employers on equality issues due to concerns around cost. This reflects experiences in 2016 and shows the continued impact austerity is having on equality. Across sectors, unions reported that equality was still a difficult subject to engage employers on due to the ongoing toxic political environment since the Brexit referendum, which has seen a rise in hate crimes and racist incidents and divisive political attacks on equality.
A challenge coming out of the pandemic will be for unions to use their collective power to address the unequal impact it has had, ensure our recovery is fair and fight against further austerity measures. It remains to be seen whether the small gains made prior to the pandemic can support this work.

Our survey was not only before the Covid-19 pandemic, but also before the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in UK, US and beyond and the groundswell of anger following the murders of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman in the UK. Our recovery takes place at a time when there is a collective feeling of injustice across the country and we will see in our next audit if this translates to greater demands on employers for equality.

The bargaining process and guidelines

The audit looked at ways unions set their equality agendas and what they focus on:

  • The two most commonly mentioned mechanisms were conference debates and decisions and equality committees and conferences.
  • The most common key issue has been equal pay, but women’s pensions, the menopause, maternity agreements, disability and sexual harassment are also common.
  • The menopause is an area of substantial growth in union policy, with a number of unions submitting example guidance.

Unions provide guidance, training and materials on a range of equality issues. The most common equality topics for negotiating guidance were women, LGB plus workers, working parents, parents-to-be and carers and general equalities bargaining.

Large unions were more likely than smaller unions to have up-to-date guidance in all the equalities areas.

Negotiating success

Unions have had some success in negotiating improvements on a variety of equality-related topics in the last four years.
The most successful areas have been pay and flexible working (58 per cent of unions achieved wins in each of these areas). This represents a significant increase in the number of wins on flexible working compared to 2016. Other areas where unions have reported success are disabled workers (47 per cent), working parents/parents-to-be and carers (47 per cent) and recruitment, training and promotion (47 per cent).

Negotiating gains have become more widely spread across unions in all areas except for bargaining for women (dropping from 46 per cent of unions in 2016 to 31 per cent in 2020). Success in bargaining for LGBT plus workers has become very much more widespread. 39 per cent of unions achieved equality bargaining gains for trans workers in 2020 (compared to 22 per cent in 2016) and 36 per cent of unions achieved gains for LGB plus workers in 2020 (compared to 17 per cent in 2016).

Areas for action

The percentage of unions providing general equalities training to national paid offices has gone up, 44 per cent in 2020 compared to 32 per cent in 2016. But more unions provide equality bargaining training to lay negotiators than to paid officials and the priority areas are different for each group. For example, 44 per cent of unions provide training in pregnancy and maternity discrimination to lay negotiators compared to 22 per cent providing it to national paid officers. Ensuring more training to national officers and aligning needs between groups is a recommended area of work for the future.

Unions have made gains with the guidance they are producing but the proportion of unions with guidance on Black workers has gone down since 2016.

Given that Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic due to structural racism and the continuation of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the aftermath of the EU referendum, anti-racism and bargaining for race equality will be central to union work in the coming period. This work has already started with the launch of the Anti-Racism Taskforce 4 . in December 2020. Through the taskforce the movement is determined to organise, bargain and campaign for racial equality.

For the first time in this audit we asked unions about their equality provision on automation. One in six unions has materials on the equality aspects of automation/digitalisation policies. Technology has transformed our workplaces and we expect to see the use of technology grow so it may therefore be an area where reps and members seek support. Materials on religion and belief and on younger and older workers were also identified as areas where more guidance was needed, with only one in three unions producing materials on these areas.

Finally, in this survey we break down the differences between large, medium-sized and small unions. We recognise the difference in resources that unions face and therefore commit to working with smaller unions to support their development of equality materials.

  • 4 The Anti-Racism Taskforce was established by TUC Congress in September 2020. The group is made up of senior leaders from the trade union movement and expert representatives from civil society and academia. The role and purpose of the taskforce is to agree priorities for union organising and collective bargaining action to advance racial justice at work; and increase the representation of Black trade union members at all levels of trade union democratic and employment structures. The taskforce is chaired by Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary.
Photo of Frances O’Grady by Jess Hurd/
© Jess Hurd/

Our latest Equality Audit is published at an unprecedented time, amid an ongoing pandemic that has laid bare the injustices facing women, disabled workers, LGBT plus workers, Black workers and migrants.

So many of us have experienced terrible loss over the past 18 months. Covid-19 has exposed the inequality affecting Black and disabled workers – all too often with fatal consequences. LGBT plus workers’ mental health and wellbeing has suffered as they have been distanced from support networks. And, despite being disproportionately represented in key worker roles, women have been more likely to be furloughed, made redundant and burdened by the need to balance work and caring responsibilities. The UN has warned that the pandemic could put back progress on gender equality by a quarter of a century.

The Covid-19 crisis has held up a mirror to structural disadvantage and discrimination. Tackling the root causes of this remains as important as ever, and our equality audit has a vital role to play. As well as tracking where we are as a movement on equality, it spurs us on to do better when faced with enormous challenges.

This year’s survey was completed by unions in early 2020, just as the UK left the EU but before the pandemic struck. Our members were faced with a huge range of issues, including rising anti-immigration rhetoric, the continued impact of public sector cuts, and a global reckoning on sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The toxic impact of right-wing governments across the world – including President Trump in the US and President Bolsonaro in Brazil – was also a real threat.

Despite all of this, unions have continued to advance our collective struggle for equality. Through the Anti-Racism Taskforce we are determined to organise, bargain and campaign for equality – as well as ensure that, as a movement, our own diverse house is in order. From equal pay to flexible working, from the menopause to bullying and harassment, this audit is full of examples of smart and effective bargaining. This innovative work is making a real difference to working people. We should be enormously proud of what we do.

I hope the report inspires and supports all affiliates to build on these wins. Together, we must ensure our recovery from the pandemic is fairer, more just and more equal. Ultimately, that’s the best way to win a better working life for all our members.

Frances O’Grady
TUC General Secretary

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