A TUC report, Dying on the job: racism and risk at work, has revealed the deep-seated racism that underlies the higher impact of Covid-19 on black and minority ethnic (BME) people, but its proposals fall well short of what is needed.
In the early days of the pandemic, it became clear that BME people were dying at a significantly greater rate. Compared with white people, black people are more than four times as likely to die from Covid-19, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people more than one-and-a-half times as likely.
While the government tried to portray this as a mystery requiring medical study, commentators pointed to the facts that proportionally more BME people work in frontline essential jobs and live in more populous areas, both bringing them into unavoidable contact with more people.
However, even within job and residential groupings, BME people are more likely to die. The TUC report, Dying On The Job: racism and risk at work , sets out some of the reasons why.
Some factors are measurable and relate to job security. Temporary, agency and zero-hours workers are significantly more vulnerable to work in unsafe conditions, as taking time off work would cause them to lose their income. BME workers are more than twice as likely to be on an agency contract, and nearly twice as like to be on a zero-hours contract, than white workers. One in thirteen BME workers is in a temporary job, compared with one in nineteen white workers. BME workers are over-represented in low-paid jobs, under-represented in high-paid jobs, and paid on average 3.8% less than white workers.
Other factors are less measurable but just as real. BME workers told the TUC of discrimination including: being given more dangerous work; not receiving adequate PPE even when white workers did; being made to continue attending the workplace while white workers were furloughed or allowed to work from home; being excessively scrutinised over sickness absence; and not being given support that their employer willingly gave to white workers.
But despite uncovering this damning evidence, the TUC’s answer largely comprises suggestions for more reports. It wants the government to publish a cross-departmental action plan and introduce mandatory ethnic pay-gap reporting; and employers to carry out risk assessments, establish ethnic monitoring systems, undertake workplace race equality audits, and set targets. All these measures would be welcome, but they are processes not results. It makes no difference to a black worker if their employer carries out a race equality audit but carries on hiring black workers through agencies to carry out menial work alongside better-paid, directly-employed white professionals.
The TUC makes one specific, concrete demand: a ban on zero-hour contracts. It does not demand a higher minimum wage; employers to remove proven racists from management roles; no more contracting-out in public services; public ownership of PPE production and distribution; or full pay during sickness absence or self-isolation.
Team TUC put together an impressive build-up move, but finished it by missing an open goal.