Written by:
Nannette Youssef and Sanmeet Kaur

How Covid exposed the racial segregation rife in the workplace

Read time:
6 minutes

How Covid exposed the racial segregation rife in the workplace

The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated the deep rooted inequalities already in existence across society for Black and ethnic minority communities. Black and ethnic minority communities were at the forefront of the crisis, with many stepping up and doing valuable work as key workers. But from the beginning of the pandemic, ethnic minority communities were left overexposed and underprotected: they were more likely to catch the virus and become seriously ill from it. In the first wave of the crisis, Black men and women were four times more likely to die of Covid than their white counterparts. These disparities have been reflected in the workplace too, where Covid has a devastating and disproportionate impact on ethnic minority workers . 

‘The pandemic exposed the systemic racism in the country, and beyond that, it exposed the job segregation present in the workplace’ - Harish Patel 

But why was this the case? 

Last month, four ethnic minority trade union representatives came together to tell MPs about theirs and others’ experience of racial discrimination in the workplace. Wilf Sullivan and Shavanan Taj from the Trade Union Congress, Michelle Codrington- Rogers from NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers) and Harish Patel from Unite the Union painted a desperately bleak picture of the deep structural racism present in the British workplace. 

During the pandemic , Black and minority ethnic workers were overrepresented in key worker roles which had higher COVID-19 death rates, such as carers, nurses and drivers. Male ethnic minority  workers are 57% more likely to be working in an occupation with a high COVID-19 mortality rate, while female ethnic minority workers are 48% more likely than their white counterparts to work in a high COVID-19 mortality rate job.

As Wilf put it: 

‘Black workers were forced to do the most dangerous jobs in the pandemic because of the racialisation and segregation present in the labour market’

Even within these roles, Black and minority ethnic workers often found themselves disproportionately doing the most dangerous work with little access to Personal Protective Equipment. 1 in 6 ethnic minority workers told the TUC that they felt they had been put more at risk of exposure to Covid because of their ethnicity, with many reporting being forced to do frontline work that white colleagues had refused to do. As Wilf recalled:

‘One of the stories we heard was of a care worker, who was the only Black care worker in the home where they worked, who was the only person designated to washing the bodies of those who had died from COVID-19’ 

1 in 5 Black and minority ethnic people surveyed in a 2020 TUC report said that they believed they had been treated unfairly at work during the pandemic because of their ethnicity.  As Michelle highlighted: 

‘East Asian and South East Asian heritage teachers were being linked to the pandemic, due to Trump’s comments that this was the ‘Chinese illness’ and suffering racism and discrimination because of that’. 

Even before the pandemic, Black and minority ethnic workers disproportionately  worked in insecure jobs with fewer rights at work. Nearly half (45%) of ethnic minority workers were given harder or less popular work than their white colleagues. According to an ICM poll, 32% of ethnic minority workers had witnessed racist verbal or physical abuse in the workplace or at a work organised social event. One in six (16%) said they left their job because of the racist treatment they received. 

The Government’s response to these inequalities has, so far, been severely lacking. The four panellists  highlighted that not only did the Government fail to protect Black and minority ethnic communities throughout the pandemic, but they have failed to hold those accountable for these inequalities responsible. As of the time of writing, the Government has not committed to investigate in its upcoming COVID-19 enquiry how racial inequality and racism affected millions of Britons during the pandemic. As Michelle from the NASUWT highlighted: 

‘The government inquiry into COVID-19 needs to listen to real people and show real accountability’ 

Work also needs to be done to tackle the structural inequalities that have led to this racial segregation in the workplace. The Government must, as a first step, introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting and make employers publish action plans to ensure fair treatment for ethnic minority workers in the workplace. In addition, the Government must ban zero-hour contracts, and strengthen the rights of insecure workers. 

This article was co-written by Nannette Youssef, Policy Officer at the Runnymede Trust and Sanmeet Kaur, Policy and Campaigns Support Officer (Anti-racism taskforce) at the Trade Union Congress.

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