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Dying on the job - Racism and risk at work

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Key findings

In June the TUC launched a call for evidence for BME workers to share their experiences of work during Covid-19. More than 1,200 got in touch with the union body.

Of those who contacted the TUC:

  • One in five BME workers said they received unfair treatment because of their ethnicity
  • Around one in six BME workers felt they had been put more at risk of exposure to coronavirus because of their ethnic background. Many reported being forced to do frontline work that white colleagues had refused to do
  • Other respondents said they were denied access to proper personal protective equipment (PPE), refused risk assessments and were singled out to do high-risk work.

Racism at work

Just before the pandemic, a separate ICM poll of BME workers revealed that nearly half (45%) were given harder or less popular work tasks than their white colleagues.

And the poll found that racism was rife in the workplace:

  • Just over three in ten (31%) BME workers told the TUC that they had had been bullied or harassed at work.
  • A similar percentage (32%) had witnessed racist verbal or physical abuse in the workplace or at a work organised social event.
  • Over a third (35%) reported being unfairly turned down for a job Around a quarter (24%) had been singled out for redundancy.
  • One in seven (15%) of those that had been harassed said they left their job because of the racist treatment they received.

Previous TUC analysis has found that BME people tend to be paid less than white workers with the same qualifications. And that they are more likely to work in low-paid, undervalued jobs on insecure contracts.

Government must act on institutional and systemic racism

The TUC is calling on the government to:

  • Publish an action plan to tackle the inequalities that BME people face, including in work, health, education and justice
  • Introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting and make employers publish action plans to ensure fair treatment for BME workers in the workplace
  • Ban zero-hours contracts, and strengthen the rights of insecure workers
  • Publish all the equality impact assessments related to its response to Covid-19 and be fully transparent about how it considers BME communities in its policy decisions

Download full report (PDF)

Executive summary

The impact of coronavirus on BME people has shone a spotlight on multiple areas of systemic disadvantage and discrimination. There have been numerous reports produced over the years – some commissioned by the government itself – that have recommended action to tackle discrimination and entrenched disadvantage. 

If these recommendations had been acted on, BME workers would perhaps not have suffered the disproportionate number of deaths that have occurred during this crisis.  

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

BME workers experience systemic inequalities across the labour market that mean they are overrepresented in lower paid, insecure jobs. These inequalities are compounded by the discrimination BME people face within workplaces. Our research carried out just before the outbreak of Covid-19 revealed that BME people’s experiences at work are blighted by discrimination: almost half of BME workers (45 per cent) have been given harder or more difficult tasks to do, over one third (36 per cent) had heard racist comments or jokes at work, around a quarter (24%) had been singled out for redundancy and one in seven (15%) of those that had been harassed said they left their job because of the racist treatment they received. 

Yet very few had felt able to raise these issues.  

As the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BME workers became clear, a range of individuals and organisations debated why this was the case, with a variety of explanations being put forward. Nowhere in these debates were the voices of BME workers heard. We set out to rectify this, launching a call for evidence to properly understand the issues workers were facing and what their preferred solutions were. What people told us was shocking but not surprising as it directly reflected our research conducted before the pandemic and the experience of BME workers over the years.  

One in five of those who responded  to our call for evidence said they had been treated unfairly because of their ethnicity at work during the pandemic and around one in six said they had been put at more risk at work because of their ethnicity. BME workers told us about being singled out for higher risk work, denied access to PPE and appropriate risk assessments, unfairly selected for redundancy and furlough and hostility from managers if they raised concerns. Workers repeatedly said that the fact that they were agency workers or did not have permanent contracts  was exploited through threats to cancel work or reduce hours, both to silence them and force them to work in higher risk situations.  

Workers highlighted several areas where they felt that action was needed to change their experiences of discrimination at work. In the short term, and in response to the pandemic, there are urgent steps that employers need to take. 

These include conducting appropriate risk assessments for BME workers. These risk assessments should, drawing on the latest public health advice, consider the particular risks for Black and ethnic minority workers, who have suffered disproportionate harm from the impact of Covid-19.  Any assessments should be informed by thorough, sensitive and comprehensive conversations with BME staff that identify all relevant factors that may influence the level of risk they are exposed to, including any underlying health conditions and work arrangements. All workers must have access to appropriate PPE.  

BME workers must be able to raise issues without fear of victimisation, and with the belief that things will change for the better. This must involve better reporting and accountability mechanisms, and a willingness for senior staff to actually listen and properly respond to the concerns of BME staff. To support this, more equal BME representation is needed both at a senior and line-manager level.  

Employers need to have a clear vision of what a workplace free from racism looks like and be transparent about the levels of diversity within their organisations. 

Ethnic monitoring and regular reporting are essential if businesses and other employers are to identify and address patterns of inequality in the workplace. Organisations need to collect baseline data, update this information regularly so that the information can be seen in the context of wider trends, and measure results against clear, timebound objectives.  

Employers do not need to wait for the government to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay- gap reporting and action plans.  

We recognise that many employers, especially in the private sector, do not currently have detailed systems for ethnic monitoring. However, we urge these employers to act swiftly to introduce workforce ethnic monitoring that allows them to develop an evidence-based plan addressing inequality experienced by BME staff. Without up-to-date ethnic monitoring data on areas such as retention, recruitment and promotion, training and development opportunities and performance management, employers will find it difficult to develop a clear picture of their workplace and identify any areas where BME staff are underrepresented or potentially disadvantaged. 

But wider systemic issues also need to be resolved and this scale of change cannot be driven by individual employers alone. Clear leadership is needed from government. The coronavirus crisis, with its terrible impact on BME people, must be a turning point in government willingness to address systemic inequalities for BME people, including at work. Anything short of this clearly signals a satisfaction with the status quo; a state of affairs where lives are blighted and prematurely ended by racism.   

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