How long must BME workers wait for action to curb discrimination?

The McGregor-Smith review lays out what needs to happen. Will the government listen?


Publication of the McGregor-Smith review on the barriers BME people face when in work is seen as an opportunity for the government to finally take action and tackle the discrimination.

Over the years we at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) have consistently stressed the need for a separate and clear race equality strategy and action plan that tackles the lack of access to training, promotion, unfair performance assessment, and addresses the pay gap between BME workers and white workers.

What does the report say?

The report estimated that our economy could benefit from £24 billion if race discrimination in the workplace did not exist. Imagine what this extra cash can be spent on – NHS, social care, education, social security.

In 2015, one in eight of the working age population were from a BME background, but BME people makeup only ten per cent of the workforce and hold only six per cent of top management positions.

The employment rate for ethnic minorities is only 62.8 per cent compared with an employment rate of 75.6 per cent for a white worker. There is an employment gap of over 12 per cent. The gap is much worse for some ethnic groups. For individuals with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background, the employment rate is 54.9 per cent.

Our past research shows that BME workers are a third more likely to be underemployed. The report ‘Black, Qualified and Unemployed‘ demonstrated that at all levels of qualifications BME workers face higher rates of unemployment than white workers. And our ‘Living on the Margins‘ report revealed that BME workers have been disproportionately affected by the rise in precarious work.

If the picture set above sounds too bleak for BME workers, the reality is that the discrimination BME people face at work is real, but what this report shows is that the government needs to take immediate and decisive action to deal with racism in the workplace.

The power of unions 

We are pleased that Ruby McGregor-Smith has taken on board some of our recommendations from the evidence we provided for the review. Companies with over 50 employees to publish data on race and pay as well as set aspirational targets for how businesses expect their organisations to look like in five years’ time and measure progress of the targets on a yearly basis.

Ethnic monitoring is essential if employers are to identify and tackle patterns of inequality at work. To achieve this organisation will need to collect baseline data, regularly update this information so that it can be seen in the context of trends in the workplace, and produce measurable race equality targets. Equally important is that this process is open and transparent.

For many years we have been calling on the government to introduce central and local government race equality requirements into public sector contracts for the supply of goods and services as a way of providing incentives for companies to improve their race equality policies and practices. We believe companies that do not meet the requirements should not be awarded public contracts.

We are also pleased Ruby McGregor-Smith listened to the voice of the trade unions by citing TUC reports in the review. There is also a section in the report of best practice case studies which includes examples from NASUWT, UCU, STUC and NUT on how unions are delivering change on race at work.

What needs to happen now

The review is providing companies with the opportunity to implement these recommendations. The most important part of this report is that the recommendations are business led and voluntary. Businesses are being encouraged to follow these recommendations to the government to review in a year’s time.

The report has made the clear business case, and the benefits of gaining £24 billion in the economy should be an even more incentive for companies to want to tackle race at work but is this enough? Can we afford to wait and see what employers will do and if they will take action?

We believe that waiting to see how businesses will respond to the review recommendations is not an option. The government needs to act on all the recommendations in the report and implement the recommendation which calls for legislation to ensure that all companies employing more than 50 people publish workforce data by race and pay band.

In the meantime, unions will continue to campaign on racism. We will continue to highlight racial injustice in the workplace through our upcoming findings from the racism at work survey which just ended.

Natasha Owusu is the Policy and Campaigns Support Officer in the Trades Union Congress’s (TUC)  Equality and Strategy department

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