It is almost 50 years since the Race Relations Act was amended to outlaw racial discrimination in employment. Drawing on their new report Stephen Ashe and James Nazroo argue that the evidence strongly demonstrates that there remains a need for employers and the Government to take urgent action against the entrenched nature of racism and racial inequality.
Last year we saw numerous events and activities commemorating the introduction of the Race Relations Act, which was introduced to ‘legislate against racial discrimination and incitement in public places’.
But it was not until the Race Relations Amendment Act of 1968 that racial discrimination in employment was outlawed. Since then the Race Relations Act has been further amended on numerous occasions. In fact, the 2000 amendment made it compulsory for all public bodies to have a race equality policy and plan of action (see also the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010).
And yet, racial inequality in the labour market has proven itself a historically resilient feature of work life in Britain.
Over the last few years, our colleagues in the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity have shown that ‘major ethnic inequalities remain in employment indicators despite some convergence’. In terms of rates of labour market participation, this work has shown that over the last twenty years White women and men have had a consistent advantage compared to women and men in many other ethnic groups.
Such evidence raises serious questions about the range of drivers for these persisting inequalities, particularly the role of racism and discrimination in the labour market, the effectiveness of existing legislation and the political will of government (past and present) and employers when it comes to tackling racial inequality in the labour market.
Race at Work Survey
It was this very persistence of racial inequality that led Business in the Community (BITC) to commission the Race at Work survey in 2015. Conducted by YouGov, some 24,457 people from across Britain took part, with a core sample of 6,076 respondents designed to be representative of those in the labour market, making this survey one of the biggest of its kind.
Quantitative analysis of the survey found that 28% of ethnic minority employees had witnessed and/or experienced racist harassment or bullying from managers in the past five years, 32% from colleagues, 17% from clients and customers, and 14% from suppliers. 30% of these experiences had occurred in the last year.
The survey also found that less than 50% of employers had offered equality and diversity training, and of this only 65% of participants reported that it was mandatory.
Earlier this year, we conducted a thematic analysis of over 5,000 comments and statements made as part of the survey that related to racial harassment and bullying, leadership and the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
In doing so, we found further evidence that racism continues to be a persistent, and in many cases routine and systematic, feature of work life in Britain, reflecting its central position in the organisation of society in ways that structurally disadvantage ethnic minority people.
Our qualitative analysis highlighted that ethnic minority workers are frequently subjected to racism in a wide variety of ways, ranging from ‘banter’ to violence and intimidation, as well as more ‘subtle’ forms of racism. Alongside Islamophobia and antisemitism, crude and overt forms of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism were also prevalent.
Although some survey participants noted that their employers had promoted equality and diversity in a variety of ways, and often on a regular basis, the overall picture is much bleaker.
It was more common for participants to say that they were unsure of what their employer did to promote these values. Some even suggested that the promotion of equality and diversity was ‘non-existent’ in their place of work. What is more, a large number of employees referred to their employer’s efforts as being ‘symbolic’ and ‘tokenistic’, if not simply a ‘box ticking exercise’.
We also found that while some managers were said to have taken a zero-tolerance approach to racism, survey participants were far more likely to report that managers were indifferent towards racism at work, and were sometimes the main culprits.
Writing for The Sunday Times before stepping down as Prime Minister, David Cameron argued that there is ‘compelling evidence that people with ethnic-sounding names were less likely to get call-backs for jobs, even with the same qualifications’. Cameron also argued that
“we need to…tackle discrimination. I don’t care whether it’s overt, unconscious or institutional – we’ve got to stamp it out…we must be far more demanding of our institutions.”
Upon replacing Cameron as Prime Minister, Theresa May announced that there is to be ‘an unprecedented audit of public services to reveal racial disparities and help end the burning injustices many people experience across Britain’.
In our report, we have put forward a number of recommendations for government and employers to move towards addressing racism and racial inequality in employment and to achieve real, meaningful and substantive change.
Given that it is almost 50 years since the Race Relations Act was amended to outlaw racial discrimination in employment, we find ourselves again asking questions that have been asked many times before: are employers willing to show leadership in this area, seriously assessing the extent of racial inequality in their organisations, while also critically reviewing their existing (or the absence of) equality and diversity practices?
Similarly, does the current government have the political will to radically revise the existing legislative framework to ensure that employers comply with existing legislation and equality duties, applying heavy sanctions against employers in cases of non-compliance?
One thing is for certain: the time for tough talk and rhetorical posturing is over. We’ve heard it all before.
Other views on Racism in the Workplace
“If there’s one phrase that strikes weariness into my heart, it’s this. “I’m not being racist, but …” It’s one of those pointless British rhetorical habits that manages to serve as both understatement and alert to the imminent utterance of something that is indeed racist. In my case, over the years, it’s been followed by: “If people are a bit off with you it’s because it’s impossible to get a job around here if you’re white these days”, “I’m not sure whether an afro really works here”, and “Why do you need to have a BME network? Where’s the white men’s network?”” Afua Hirsch, writing in The Guardian
“I have been on the receiving end of discrimination in all its forms since arriving in Britain in 1960, aged 10. I was spat upon and told to go back to where I came from. My older sister was told to her face that the company she wanted to work for did not employ black people.
Thankfully those dark days are long gone. But there is still a considerable way to travel before discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or race in the workplace is consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” Baroness Benjamin, writing in The Telegraph
“There are many reasons why ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the workplace and particularly in management and senior management positions. Most ultimately boil down to forms of discrimination which range from overt racism to more subtle and harder to detect forms of bias.” Tom Legge, writing on the Runnymede blog