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Zita Holbourne - Chair of the 2008 TUC Black Workers' Conference

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Zita Holbourne - Opening Remarks

Greetings, Colleagues, friends, brothers and sisters, fellow delegates, visitors and guests.

I welcome you all on behalf of the TUC to Eastbourne and this annual gathering of black workers from all over the United Kingdom.

This is the 15th annual TUC Black Workers Conference and we continue to be an important and essential part of the TUC Calendar.

Conference is always a special occasion, not only because it is a chance to meet up with old friends, to make new friends and to discuss the latest issues and gossip, but also because it helps to strengthen the bonds between us so we stand united when we leave this conference.

I want to take this opportunity to welcome those individual delegates and visitors who are attending this conference for the first time.

Before I say something about the challenges that we face in our fight for social justice I would like to say a few words of tribute to the late Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the NUT. Steve sadly and suddenly passed on 5th of April at the age of only 56. I know that there are many here who knew Steve personally and will be deeply affected by his loss, but his passing is a loss to us all across the trade union movement. My thoughts are with all those grieving his loss, especially his wife, children and grandchildren. The NUT website has an on-line book of Condolences for all those who wish to pay tribute to Steve.

In many ways the best way to pay tribute to Steve is to continue with the struggles he was involved in.

Conference, as black activists engaged in a struggle for racial equality and against discrimination and exploitation, we must use our time together, productively.

This conference is an opportunity for us to share our thoughts, experiences and our hopes and fears, debate those issues that are most important to us and set our priorities for the coming year, in order to overcome some of the barriers we face and to make some of our hopes a reality.

You are all very welcome to the conference. My hope for new delegates and indeed all delegates present is that you will play an active part in this conference and find it a positive and rewarding experience. We look forward to all your contributions over the next 3 days.

Conference, 15 years have passed since the tragic death of a vibrant young man, Stephen Lawrence. It is a year which finally saw the opening of the Stephen Lawrence Centre which stands as a monument to the campaign that the Lawrence family fought to try to bring their son's killers to justice.

But the scandalous attack that took place on the Centre reminds us that racism is still alive and thriving.

Next year will be the tenth anniversary of the publication of Sir William McPherson's report resulting from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.

A report that recognised that institutional racism plays an important part in perpetuating the discrimination faced by black people in the workplace, in society and in communities.

A report that highlighted the need for both public and private sector organisations to tackle institutional racism if the systemic barriers that exclude black people are to dismantle and we are to have a fair society.

A report that resulted in the passing of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 that placed a duty on public sector organisations to promote race equality.

But Conference, unfortunately the need to tackle institutional racism has not become top of the political agenda.

The need to properly enforce the public duty to promote race equality and eliminate race discrimination is not a top priority for public authorities and certainly not for Government departments.

As a PCS union rep, I have witnessed the lack of proper race equality schemes that meet the minimum standards, first hand.

I have seen the requirement for race equality impact assessments ignored in the Civil Service programme of job cuts, when the time comes for deciding which workers are to lose their jobs and the disproportionate negative impact on black workers disregarded.

Even the Commission for Racial Equality just before they were merged into the new Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

recognised that action needed to be taken, and called upon their successor body to take action against 15 Central Government Departments because of non compliance with the public duty on Race.

Conference if Government Departments don't take the law on tackling race discrimination seriously how can we expect any other employer to do so?

That is why my union has organised a campaign to put pressure on the EHRC to take enforcement action against these Government departments, which I hope you will all participate in.

Conference, the theme of this Conference is Bargaining for a Fair Workplace. As trade unionists we need to make sure these issues become part of the collective bargaining and campaigning agendas of our unions.

The TUC has produced a bargaining guide on race discrimination in the workplace to assist unions in taking a collective approach when dealing with race discrimination at work.

It is clear that we cannot rely on the courts to sort out our problems or a Government funded Equality Commission.

We must not make the mistake of just thinking of racism as a problem in personal relations that can be solved by educating white people about our race, ethnicity or culture.

If we are to remove the institutional barriers that face us we have to be clear about what it is we are trying to achieve and understand that it is essential for us to self organise in order to fight for change.

Conference this month marks 40 years since Enoch Powell made his Rivers of Blood speech in Wolverhampton and whilst policy makers and pundits would have us believe that the world has moved on, you only have to read the Daily Mail or Telegraph to know that for some the issues remain the same.

We have the serious prospect in London, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world of the BNP gaining one or more seats on the Greater London Assembly.

We have a Government report on Citizenship which is about people outside of the EU and seeks to create a situation whereby in order to remain permanently in the UK you have to earn British Citizenship and demands that if you want to get married and your partner comes from outside the EU then they have to speak better English than the English!

We have the introduction of a points based migration system that is resulting in black workers from different parts of the world suddenly finding that they can no longer have permission to stay and do the jobs that the Government were quite happy for them to do, before they decided that all our labour needs could be met from Europe.

We have an ongoing political debate about integration -v- Multiculturalism, community cohesion and religious identity and people who should know better posing the question

'Was Enoch Powell Right?'

Conference you only have to look at Government statistics over the last 40 years to understand that the plague of race discrimination that afflicted our parents generation in gaining access to decent work, housing, education, health care and protection and fair treatment from the law are as big an issue today as they ever were. This is the appalling reality.

You only have to pick up the newspapers or switch on the TV to understand that the attitudes about racial superiority and inferiority are still alive and kicking, that there is still a belief that if you keep down the numbers of black people you can have good race relations and that because we are tolerated if we complain we are considered to be making unreasonable demands because we should be grateful for being here.

Conference I am sure that every one of us here is not interested in simply being tolerated.

We want to be treated as equals, have a level playing field in all aspects of society, including the workplace.

We want to live with dignity and be respected.

We want to have our fair share of the wealth from the effort we have put into building and sustaining this country, not just during this century but in the centuries before when our ancestors were enslaved and their lands occupied.

We want the state to cease treating us as the other and as the enemy within.

We want a society where our children and grandchildren can grow up and not have to relive and fight the horrors of racism we have.

Conference these are some of the issues that form the backdrop to the debates this weekend.

They form part of our agenda for the trade union movement.

We must set high goals, organise ourselves and be proactive in challenging the government, employers and the trade union movement to meet those goals.

We should be clear that tough challenges lie ahead of us.

However, I know that through working together in unity and solidarity as black people and in unity across the trade union movement we have a chance of making more progress.

I feel honoured to have the opportunity to chair this conference.

Again I welcome you all to the 15th Annual TUC Black Workers Conference in Eastbourne and I would like to share with you this quote from the great Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967.

Have a great conference and thank you very much for listening.

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