The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified structural inequalities across the UK, with workers from BME (Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds) disproportionately impacted by the spread of the virus, according to recent TUC research.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics released in May showed that there were significant racial disparities in rates of Covid-19 transmission. Black men were 4.2 times more likely than white men to die of the illness, while Black women were 4.3 times more likely to die than white women.
People from Asian backgrounds also face significantly higher death rates. Women from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds were 1.6 times more likely to die than white women, while the corresponding figure for men was 1.8 times.
The TUC began a major research project in 2015, examining 5000 accounts of experiences of racism at work. At the start of June 2020, the TUC also put a call out for BME people to come forward with their experiences of discrimination since the start of the pandemic. The results reveal some disturbing trends.
BME people’s experiences in the labour market
Higher rates of Covid-19 infection among BME populations are linked to wider trends in the labour market. For example, BME workers are more likely to be in insecure, low-paid work, which means they may not have the luxury of working from home.
Migrant workers are at particularly high risk. Years of ‘hostile environment’ policies mean that many migrant workers have no recourse to public funds and are unable to access health services.
Also, a substantial proportion of BME people work in key work roles in health, social care and transportation, all of which present a higher risk of contracting the virus.
Experiences of unfair treatment during the pandemic
Since the start of the pandemic, 45 per cent of respondents reported being singled out to do harder or more dangerous tasks at work, even when white workers had not been asked or had refused to do so.
Estelle (not her real name), a midwife, told us: “I have noticed a trend of Black midwives being sent on home visits in the community. Black midwives expressed their concern because of the obvious and clear information regarding BME people being more at risk of dying of coronavirus or being seriously unwell. Yet the majority of midwives that have been sent on home visits have been Black.”
Unfair criticism and lack of support at work
As many as 45 per cent of the BME workers we spoke to felt they had received unfair criticism at work, while 35 per cent had experienced unfair performance assessments.
And these experiences aren’t just resigned to the workplace. Among BME workers who have been furloughed or are working from home, many have reported that they are not receiving the support they need. In addition, many are facing higher levels of surveillance and scrutiny.
As one worker told us anonymously: “Whilst working from home I have felt more micromanaged than my white colleagues. I feel I am asked for more justification for what I have been working on. I have also not received the same level of sympathy and have been expected to do the same, and quite often more, than what I would at the office.”
Lack of Personal Protective Equipment
A key factors leading to high rates of Covid-19 infection among BME communities is a lack of adequate PPE. The TUC received numerous reports that requests for PPE had been denied or were not taken seriously.
As Precious (not her real name), a care worker told us: “There was a shortage of PPE in [the] care home. I was expected to wash deceased Covid patients without appropriate PPE (seven in total) whilst white colleagues have not had one. [There was an] assumption that because of my colour I would do what I was told.”
Addressing workplace inequalities
In order to address the systemic racism, discrimination and unfair treatment that is leading to higher rates of Covid-19 transmission among BME people, the TUC is calling on employers to:
These measures will go some way towards wider systemic change, paving the way for all workers, regardless of race, to be treated with dignity and respect.
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